The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#954) describes 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 [the Church Militant]. Others have died and are being purified [the Church Suffering], while still others are in glory, contemplating ‘in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is.’” [the Church Triumphant]
The Church Militant
For we earthly pilgrims, Jesus asks us the very same question that He proffered to His disciples: “But who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:15) As we traverse these times in which God has appointed us to live, our answer makes all the difference. As Jesus’ disciples and pilgrims “on the way,” the word “militant” recalls that we are engaged in a form of warfare.
In a blog that I follow, Exorcist Diary, Msgr. Stephen Rossetti touches on the “form” of warfare we are up against:
The real confrontation between an exorcist and the demons does not take place in the prayer session. Satan knows, in a face-to-face fight with Christ and his Church, he loses every time. Rather, his best “game” is behind the scenes. As a master psychologist, the Evil One tries to manipulate everyone involved- priests, laity, the possessed and family. He tries to make the family breakdown in discord. He tempts the possessed person to give up. And he very subtly tries to manipulate the priest and team in a myriad of ways.Diary #153, August 29, 2021
Again, noting the words of this wise exorcist: “Satan knows, in a face-to-face fight with Christ and his Church, he loses every time.” Given this, may we heed the wisdom of St. Ignatius of Loyola regarding our choice of which army we pledge our allegiance.
The Church Suffering
In The City of God, St. Augustine wrote that “temporary punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by others after death, by others both now and then; but all of them before that last and strictest judgment.” (21:13) The final verses (57-59) from chapter twelve of the Gospel of Luke provide us similar insight; namely, that our souls are purified of the consequences of sin between the particular and general judgments. “I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.” (Luke 12:59)
Regarding suffering, a wise uncle once reminded me that “none of us leaves this life without suffering.” As we look around our families and communities, we needn’t gaze very far to see the myriad of suffering that exists at so many levels. From the deaths of loved ones to diagnoses of health issues to breakdowns in relationships, we are constantly confronted by them. During rough times within my own life, I will always remember my father’s words of perspective borrowed from a red-headed girl named Annie: “The sun will come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there’ll be sun.” And these were always followed by my mother’s words, honed by her own occasional sorrows experienced growing up in a large family—on a farm: “Make hay while the sun shines.” I’ve always taken this to mean that when the sun once more shines upon us (and it always does!), that we are meant to make the most of the opportunities that come to us from the God who created, loves, and died for us.
C.S. Lewis described the doctrine of purgatory (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, #s 1030-1032) as the “washroom of heaven” for it is there where our souls are cleansed from sin and earthly attachments prior to embracing the joys of heaven. Given that we are joined to one another in the Communion of Saints, the Church Suffering rely chiefly upon the mercy of God but still also upon the prayers of the Church Militant (you and me) so that they may proceed to their eternal embrace with Our Lord.
The Church Triumphant
St. Therese of Lisieux noted the difference between earth and heaven: “The world’s thy ship and not thy home.” For this doctor of the Church, heaven was her true home whereas her earthly life was the catalyst to get there. Always focused on her true home, the Little Flower beckons us to remember that the true purpose of our life is to be united with God in heaven.
In 1987, the singer Belinda Carlisle recorded the hit single, “Heaven is a Place on Earth.” The lyrics are both catchy and interesting:
Ooh baby, do you know what that’s worth
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth.
They say in heaven love comes first
We’ll make heaven a place on earth
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth.
While it is a fun song, I’m certain of its theological incorrectness. To echo the words of St. Therese, “…the world’s not our final home.” Pope Benedict XVI, shortly before his own death, commented on the passing of a former colleague: “Now he has arrived in the hereafter, where I am sure many friends are already waiting for him. I hope that I will soon be able to join them.”
So, the Church Triumphant live in heaven! Now crowned with glory, their one constant attribute is that they’ve “run the race.” St. Paul provides us a blueprint leading to eternal life:
For I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance.2 Timothy 4:6-8
Regarding those with whom we no longer share the same physical space, we should remind ourselves of how intimately united we are with them in spiritual ways that surpass our finite and limited understanding. May we pray that, one day, we will once more be together with them and inherit the eternal home which Jesus has promised:
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.John 14:2-3