Thursday, January 28, 2010

Because of the Communion of Saints

Guest post by Allison Salerno 
My 13-year-old mistook me for a Guantanamo Bay prisoner. When I told Gabriel last week I had been fasting for Haiti, his response was “I don’t think that is necessary, Mom. No one is against Haiti right now.” Our son’s frame of reference for fasting was the tradition of a hunger strike—where participants fast in a public way as an act of political protest or to bring about a policy change. Such strikes happened in 2005 among Guantanamo Bay detainees, to protest their innocence and the conditions of their detainment.

Fasting in the Catholic tradition is far different, a concept lost on my altar-serving confirmandi boy-turning-man. And if he doesn’t understand it—a boy whose parents are deeply involved in the life of their parish—how about teens with a more tenuous hold on our faith?

I don’t blame my son for his ignorance. Not until May 2007 did I really understand the meaning of what had, until then, been a phrase to me: “the communion of saints.”

That was when our second son, Lucas’s, CCD teacher gathered us “First Communion parents” (there were six communicants and six moms showed up for the meeting) in the parish hall for a meeting to prep us for the sacrament.

“Do you understand what is going to happen Sunday?” the 28-year-old Catholic mother of two asked. Our answers were boilerplate: “They are undergoing a sacrament of initiation in the Catholic Church.” Or “They will receive the body and blood of Christ for the first time.”

“Okay,” she challenged us, “but what is really happening?” We had no answers.

She went on to describe how we all are part of a family that exists beyond the bounds of space and time. I left that meeting understanding—finally, at age 43—that this communion of saints is real. Each of us is part of the mystical body of Jesus Christ. That body includes those of us living in the "real" world, who pray for one another, and those who have gone before us, are living in a heavenly dimension, and are praying for us.

“Your children will fully enter into the mystical body of Christ on Sunday,” she said. “This is forever. Souls in heaven will be praying for them now, and when they die, your children will be praying for the souls on earth.”

Never has this communion of saints felt more powerful to me than right now. Consider that tens of thousands of people died in the Haitian earthquake without time to prepare. We can pray for their souls. We can pray for the families they left behind. We can offer our temporary suffering to relieve a piece of theirs.

In partnership with my parish priest and another mom who coordinates youth group with me, our parish is organizing a teen Fast for Haiti. Inspired by a movement loosely affiliated with Catholic Relief Services and being organized through the Internet, Catholics throughout the world have been donating $5 a meal to the Catholic Relief Services’ efforts in Haiti.

At our tiny parish, we hope to educate young parishioners about the role of fasting in one’s spiritual life. We plan to meet on a Friday night during Lent to fast and pray, play some quiet board games and make tee shirts that say “Fast for Haiti.” Teens will ask sponsors for $5 each, to be donated to CRS. Most powerfully, we hope to share with our young parishioners the value of prayer and fasting in relieving human suffering.

Because I am Catholic, I have the great comfort in knowing we can pray for the souls in heaven or on their way to heaven (the process known as Purgatory) and that the souls in heaven pray for all of us, too.

I hope my son and our other young parishioners will learn this essential lesson long before I did.