In the film Camino Skies (2019), there is a moving scene that highlights the power of prayer.
A New Zealander and his Kiwi son-in-law are among those making the pilgrimage on the famous Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. The older man has walked the Camino before. The two men have a shared grief, the loss of a 17-year-old granddaughter and daughter to cystic fibrosis.
The two men walk into a church and the older man points out that, on his previous pilgrimage, people in that church, on the other side of the world, strangers, had prayed for the younger man and his daughter. Does that mean something to you? the older man asked his son-in-law. Yes, it does, the younger man said, through his tears.
This little episode shows something of what it means to be a Communion of Saints. Speaking on All Souls Day in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI reportedly said that a visit to the cemetery to pray for loved ones who have left us” is a good reminder of the “Communion of Saints”, and that there is a “close link between we who still walk upon the earth and our countless brothers and sisters who have already reached eternity”.
The Catholic News Agency account of this address reported Benedict stating that the life of a person is understandable, “only if there is a love that overcomes all isolation, even that of death”.
“Dear friends,” Benedict said in a general audience later that day, “the Solemnity of All Saints and the commemoration of all the faithful departed tells us that only those who can recognise a great hope in death, can live a life based on hope”.
“If we reduce man exclusively to his horizontal dimension, to that which can be perceived empirically, life itself loses its profound meaning. Man needs eternity, for every other hope is too brief, too limited for him. Man can be explained only if there is a Love which overcomes every isolation, even that of death, in a totality which also transcends time and space. Man can be explained, he finds his deepest meaning, only if there is God. And we know that God left his distance for us and made himself close. He entered into our life and tells us: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).
In an All Souls Day homily five years earlier, Benedict remarked on the importance of remembering the names of the departed on such occasions. This refers “us to the Sacrament of Baptism which marked, for . . . every Christian, entry into the Communion of the Saints”.
Wonderful though this theology is, there is a sad disconnect between many non-practising Catholics and their faith communities. Speaking in Remuera in 2019, then-Bishop Paul Martin suggested one way, among many, for reconnecting people.
“I wonder if we said to every parent that came to sign up for a preference card for our school that was not an active member of our parish, we are really delighted you want to come to our school, it’s great, but as part of that, in order that you really understand what it is you are coming to, we want you to join the Alpha course,” Bishop Martin said.
Maybe another way to reconnect parents, school communities and parishes could be to make more of the month of November. Most people have lost loved ones. How about asking people to bring photos of their departed loved ones to a gathering? The names of the departed could be read out, along with a short message, written by the family, of why they are important to them. The departed could be prayed for by name by the whole community. People could be invited to place photos and names in a designated space. Candles could be lit.
In such a gathering, the Communion of Saints could be demonstrated to those who have lost connection.