I was invited by EWTN to participate on All Souls Day and say a few words about the Communion of Saints. My host informed me that many of the televiewers know very little about the Communion of Saints, and therefore I should be simple and straightforward. My approach was staring me in the face. The acronym EWTN—the Eternal Word Television Network—was all the inspiration I needed.
The word “network” has popular currency. People enjoy “networking” with each other in order to find out more about the topic they might be researching. EWTN is a “network” in the sense that its signal goes out to millions of people who gather together in this vast web. But EWTN is no ordinary network. It is strikingly different from secular networks such as ABC, NBC, and CBS. These networks provide a mix of messages, many of which are less than beneficial to their audience.
The EWTN network is special in that it is unified by its association with the Word of God. It is a network that captures its audience, not like a spider captures its prey, but the way it captures our hearts and minds with the liberating power of God’s holy Word. “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). EWTN transmits the Word electronically so that it can dwell among us and unite together all those who receive it. It is, indeed, a very special kind of network.
At the same time, its transmission is Eternal. This means that its message is not restricted by time or geography. It transcends fads and cultures. As C. S. Lewis once remarked, “Everything that is not eternal is eternally out of date”. It does not matter that Mother Angelica has passed away. Her words continue to be relevant. The category of the Eternal embraces both the living and the dead.
We cannot vault the staircase in a single leap. We proceed step by step until we reach the top. Education is very much like ascending a staircase. We proceed one step at a time. Thus, by advancing from “network” to “Word” to “Eternal,” we come to a more complete understanding of EWTN and knock on the door of the Communion of Saints.
By examining the compact meaning of EWTN (it is explosive of meaning) we find ourselves on the doorstep of what is meant by the Communion of Saints. We have no way of knowing with any degree of certainty, whether the saints in heaven receive the EWTN signal. In this regard, we can say that the Communion of Saints goes a step beyond EWTN. It embraces the living and the dead, the suffering in Purgatory and the saints in heaven. According to Flannery O’Connor, “This action by which charity grows invisibly among us, entwining the living and the dead is called by the church the Communion of Saints”.
We are careful to note that members of this Communion are not all canonized saints. The term “saints” is used the way St. Paul addressed the Philippians: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi” (Letter to the Philippians, 1:1). As members of the Communion of Saints, we are united in the holiness of the Divine Word. In his remarkable book, The Mystical Body of Christ, Bishop Fulton Sheen remarks that the Communion of saints “is indeed one of the most consoling doctrine of the faith that we can help our loved ones after death, if they stand in need of help, and by doing so perhaps make atonement for our own gratitude to them during life”.
It is especially consoling at the current moment when the Covid-19 pandemic is ravaging the globe that we can pray for the dead, that those who have passed before us have not passed out of existence and remain beneficiaries of our prayers. It also means that the deceased can pray for us. “Don’t weep,” St. Dominic said to a friend at the time of his passing, “for I shall be more useful to you after my death”.
I have been to EWTN headquarters in Irondale, Alabama several times. It is a Mecca that attracts extraordinary people. On one occasion I met a lady who possessed very special gifts. She was an artist who sketched angels who appeared to her. The angels arrived whenever she played a tape of Handel’s Messiah (Handel attests that he saw angels while composing his masterpiece). She showed me a sample of her androgynous angels that were quite remarkable for their beauty and how they harmoniously integrated male and female characteristics.
Over a period of about two years, she saw and spoke to her deceased husband. The only way to describe him, she told me, was that he was “virtue”. She longed to be with him in heaven and prayed each night before retiring that God would take her while she was asleep. But after two years and remaining alive, she realized that God had something special for her to do before she entered the next world. She had a vivid experience of the Communion of Saints, something that most of us accept by our faith.
We recite the Communion of Saints during the Apostles Creed at every Mass. It is proceeded by the words, “the forgiveness of sins”. This conjunction is significant for it suggests that we can ask our deceased loved ones to forgive us for whatever sins we may have committed against them. In this regard, the Sisters of Life, the religious order founded by Cardinal O’Connor, has a special mission in caring for women who have had abortions. The Sisters ask these women to pray to their aborted children for forgiveness.
Being a member of the Communions of Saints is like singing the Messiah in a choir and noticing that the one standing next to you is an angel.
image: Jan Blasko / Shutterstock