There can be nothing more resolutely Catholic than the Church’s teaching on the Communion of Saints. It is a phrase on our lips during the recitation of the Creed every Sunday – but do we actually know what it means? This is what Stephen Walford has set out to explore in his book, Communion of Saints (Angelico Press), sub-titled, The Unity of Divine Love in the Mystical Body of Christ.
As the author explains it in detail, with reference to Scripture, the Magisterium, Tradition and the writings of the saints, it is a doctrine of immense consolation to us on earth, known as “the Church Militant”. Along with the Church Suffering (the Holy Souls) and the Church Triumphant, the countless millions of saints already in heaven, we are actually party of a vast supernatural family, beyond what we can possible conceive in our human imagination.
As November is traditionally the month of the Holy Souls – those people who have died but who still need purification before entering heaven – Purgatory has been on my mind. Coincidentally, having read in Walford’s book the story behind the ancient custom of Gregorian Masses for the Dead, our own parish priest mentioned this practice on Sunday, suggesting that when parish priests cannot say 30 consecutive Masses for the soul of one parishioner, it is likely that monks in religious communities can do so.
Indeed, he pointed out, poorer religious communities in Third World countries would be happy to receive offerings for Gregorian Masses, which would not only help the soul of the deceased in its journey to God, but could also contribute to the material wellbeing of the community itself and the local people it serves.
So what are Gregorian Masses? According to tradition, Pope St Gregory the Great wrote in his Dialogues that a monk in his own monastic community by the name of Justus had died after confessing to having broken his vow of holy poverty. As a result he was buried outside the monastery. Then Gregory, thinking of the dead monk’s sufferings in Purgatory, asked the prior of the monastery, Pretiosus, to ensure that 30 Masses were offered on consecutive days for Justus’s soul.
St Gregory relates that on the 30th day Justus appeared to Pretiosus in a vision, “filled with joy at his release from Purgatory.”
Walford’s book is full of such stories. He rightly emphasises that private revelations cannot be considered on a par with the official teachings of the Church, but that “when authentic, these experiences can add a depth of understanding that perhaps is not revealed through the ordinary means.”