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The communion of saints

November 12, 2015
Father Ron Rolheiser

At any given time, most of the world believes that death isn’t final. Most people believe that those who have died still exist in some state however that might be conceived. In some conceptions, immortality is seen as a state wherein a person is still conscious and relational; while in other concepts, existence after death is understood as real but impersonal.

Christians believe that the dead are still alive, still themselves and, very importantly, still in a living, conscious, and loving relationship with us and with each other. However simplistic it is wonderfully correct. That’s exactly what Christian faith and Christian dogma, not to mention deep intuitive experience, invite us to.

But how is this to be understood? How do we connect to our loved ones after they have died?

The Gospels say that at the instant of Jesus’ death the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised (Matthew 27, 50-52). The Gospels tell us that on the morning of the resurrection women came to Jesus’ grave to anoint his dead body with embalming spices, but rather than finding his dead body, they meet instead an empty grave and two angels who challenge them: Why are you looking for a live person in a cemetery? He isn’t here. He’s alive and you can find him in Galilee (Luke 24, 5).

As Christians, we believe that we are given eternal life through Jesus’ death. Jesus death, the Gospels tell us, “opened the tombs” and emptied graveyards. For this reason, Christians have never had a huge cult around cemeteries. Why? Because we believe all those graves are empty. Our loved ones aren’t there and aren’t to be found there. They’re with Jesus, in “Galilee.”

“Galilee” in the Gospels is more than a place on a map; it’s also a place inside the Spirit, God’s Spirit and our own. Galilee is the place where good things happen. It’s the place where the disciples first meet Jesus, where they fall in love with him, where they commit themselves to him, and where miracles happen.

And that is also a place for each of our deceased loved ones. In each of their lives, there was a Galilee, a place where their persons and souls were most alive, where their lives radiated the energy and exuberance of the divine. When we look at the life of a loved one who has died we need to ask: Where was she most alive? What qualities did she, most uniquely, embody and bring into a room? Where did she lift my spirit and make me want to be a better person?

Name those things, and you will have named your loved one’s Galilee and the Galilee of the Gospels; that place in the heart where Jesus invites you to meet him.

And that is too where you will meet your loved ones in the communion of saints.

Elizabeth Johnson, leaning on Karl Rahner, adds this thought: “Hoping against

hope, we affirm that they (our loved ones who have died) have fallen not into nothingness but into the embrace of the living God. And that is where we can find them again; when we open our hearts to the silent calmness of God’s own life in which we dwell, not by selfishly calling them back to where we are, but by descending into the depth of our own hearts where God also abides.”

The “Galilee” of our loved ones can also be found inside our own “Galilee”; a deep place inside the heart, inside faith, hope, and charity, where everyone, living or deceased, is met.

Oblate Father Rolheiser is president of the Oblate School of Theology, San Antonio, Texas.

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