At Monday’s lunch with many of the cardinals –not all–Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the struggle he and they are engaged together: for good against evil. Not exactly a lite topic for discussion for a lunch celebrating one’s 85th birthday and 7th anniversary of election to the Chair of Saint Peter, but a point that is true and needs to be addressed.

In reading his text (below) you will notice the Pope’s use of the concept ecclesia militans – the Church Militant – which he admits is “old fashion” but still fitting today. When we say “the Church Militant” it means all living Christians who struggle against sin, the devil, or as the Apostle Paul says  “..the rulers of the darkness of this world” and “spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12).

“Church Militant” has two other sisters, “Church Triumphant” and “Church Suffering” that give context to Christian life in light of the doctrine of the Communion of Saints and of what we know the Church to be.

The quick definition of the “Church Triumphant” (Ecclesia Triumphans), indicates those who live in the beatific vision, they see and are seen by God; we say these people are in heaven. The feast day for those in heaven is November 1, All Saints Day.  When we speak of the “Church Suffering” (also called the Church Penitent, Ecclesia Penitens; or Church Expectant, Ecclesia Expectans), we believe that this group of believers are the souls in purgatory. The feast day is  All Souls, November 2.

The Catechism teaches: The three states of the Church.”When the Lord comes in glory, and all his angels with him, death will be no more and all things will be subject to him. But at the present time some of his disciples are pilgrims on earth. Others have died and are being purified, while still others are in glory, contemplating ‘in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is'” (954).

This teaching that Pope Benedict indicated as perhaps old fashion also carries with it the concept that the Church is called the Mystical Body of Christ. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the Church follows these promptings closely and she works in union with all who believe in Christ. No one is left behind: on each plane (earth, heaven and purgatory) each person has a particular job to do for the building of the Kingdom. The unity among those on earth, in heaven and in purgatory which we call the Communion of Saints. 

Biblically, we need to recall that Saint Paul calls all the baptized “Saints” but he does not mean all the canonized men and women like Saint Monica or Saint Gianna, those we say are infallibly with God. The people hearing Paul’s appeal to the baptized as saints would have understood him to mean all those who now live in Christ, all those who are adopted children of God, all those who receive the Eucharist and living “a more excellent way.”

Aside from those who have gone to heaven, the rest of us on earth and in purgatory have to work our salvation. Hence, the Church Christ founded exists on different planes: the Church is here on earth proclaiming the Kingdom of God and living according to sacred Scripture and Tradition, in heaven (the saved) and those in purgatory (those saved but who need purification prior to the Beatific Vision).

Priests don’t preach this stuff today, but the struggle for virtuous living in Christ –here on earth and in purgatory– needs to be emphasized and taught. We need to pray for the souls in purgatory as well as to fast and do good works for them to ease the burden of purification so that they reach heaven quickly. I am unsure as to why the Holy Father felt it necessary to encourage the cardinals, his friends, but the the text of his talk encourages the rest of to take seriously the battle for grace and not to succumb to sin, paying attention to those not directly present to us in this life (i.e., those gone before marked by the sign of faith).

The Pope’s remarks:

At this moment my words can only be ones of thanks. First, I thank the Lord for giving me so many years; years with many days of joy, wonderful moments, but also dark nights. But in retrospect one realizes that the nights were necessary and good, a reason for thanksgiving.

Today the word ecclesia militans [Church Militant] is a bit out of fashion, but in reality we can always better understand that which is true, that which encapsulates truth. We see how evil wants to rule the world and that it’s necessary to enter the struggle against evil. We see how it does this in so many very violent ways, with different forms of violence, but also posing as a force for good while destroying the moral foundations of society.

St. Augustine said that all history is a struggle between two loves: love of oneself even to the extent of defying God, and love of God, to the extent of defying oneself, in martyrdom. We are in this fight and in this fight it is very important to have friends. And as for me, I’m surrounded by friends of the College of Cardinals: they are my friends and I feel at home, I feel confident in this company of great friends who are with me, all together with the Lord.

Thank you for this friendship. Thank you, Your Eminence, for all you have done for this moment today, and for everything you always do. Thank you for the communion of joys and sorrows. Let us go forward, as the Lord said: “Courage, I have overcome the world.” We are on the Lord’s team, therefore we’re on the winning side. Thank you to each one of you. May the Lord bless you all. Let us raise our glasses.