In the midst of the Second World War, the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the play, No Exit. In the work, three people are damned to hell and quickly realize that their torture will not be through fire, chains, or other devices, but from each other and their own fallenness.
This led to Sartre’s famous statement: “Hell is other people.”
To the degree that the peculiarities of people and the struggles of life can lead a person to approach others with such a sour disposition, the Christian believer responds with the communion of saints.
It shows how the hassles of life and the sometime burdens of other people can lead to a deeper knowledge of oneself and a greater love for others. It can be a path toward virtue, freedom from narcissism, and holiness in life.
In response to Sartre and his deceptive creed, the Christian responds: “Heaven is other other people.”
In calling the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis emphasized this Christian response by teaching: “The Church lives within the communion of the saints.” This week the Catholic Church celebrates this communion through the feast days of All Saints on November 1 and All Souls on November 2.
The belief in the communion of saints begins here on earth as all the baptized, whom the biblical narrative calls saints or “holy ones,” are united in mind and heart through worship, doctrine, pastoral leadership, fellowship, and service to the poor.
The realty of the communion of saints on earth is reflected in the center aisle of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the sanctuary of St. Peter the Apostle and a universally recognized symbol of the Christian faith. The center aisle contains brass markers which name major churches in cities from throughout the world.
While in a trivial manner the markers indicate how other churches rank in length to St. Peter’s Basilica, more importantly the markers display the unity of all believers throughout the world, from every culture, language, society, and people.
The baptized are brought together and held in communion as one body and are then sent out to be a salt of goodness, light, and a leaven for unity within the entire human family.
The communion of saints, however, does not conclude with the living “holy ones” on earth. It is not suspended by death, but empowered by it as death nurtures hope and points to heaven.
And so, the communion of saints also includes those who have passed from this life into the next. It includes all those who are still in a time of purgation being prepared for eternity, and those who have received their reward in paradise.
The crown of the communion of saints are the triumphant souls in heaven. This group includes everyone in heaven, and is accentuated by those who have been formally canonized by the Catholic Church.
The canonized saints are those holy ones who receive public veneration and emulation by believers. These holy ones are specifically chosen because on earth they were particular examples of goodness, virtue, and the ways of God.
The saints are viewed as the friends of God, but also as models and older brothers and sisters for the holy ones still on earth.
In light of the Jubilee Year, Pope Francis said about the canonized saints: “Their holiness comes to the aid of our weakness in a way that enables the Church, with her maternal prayers and her way of life, to fortify the weakness of some with the strength of others.”
And so, heaven is other people in a very practical way.
The actions and life of the Christian are not private affairs, therefore, but are viewed within this communion of saints. The believer understands this communion and the privilege and responsibility she holds by believing and living within it.
The believer’s virtue, her love and service to others, and the completion of her duties in life are all a part of the building up of this communion to the glory of God and in service to the human family.
And so, unlike the three souls in Sartre’s No Exit, the Christian disciple is called to be an active member of the living communion of grace and goodness, receiving those in need as a reflection of heaven and seeking always to be a heaven to those around them.