In the preparations for the Second Vatican Council, Blessed John XXIII asked that a document be prepared on the veneration of the saints.
Our esteem for the saints in heaven is an important part of the Catholic faith. The saints live in a different realm, but they are not separate from us. For all the baptized, life is Christ and Christ is our life. There is a profound unity among the baptized, those now living, those in eternity and even those not yet born.
Moreover, by focusing on the saints, we impress on ourselves the transient nature of life on earth. We develop what another pope – Blessed John Paul II – called an eschatological consciousness. That is, we deepen our awareness that eternity begins in this life and comes to its full flowering after we die and are united with Christ in everlasting glory.
At Vatican II, the first draft of what was written about the saints was quite individualistic. It spoke about pious devotion to the saints and their help for us.
However, as reflection deepened on that topic, especially provoked by the theologian Yves Congar, the council fathers came to realize that not only are Christians pilgrims, but the Church itself is pilgrim.
The full title of chapter seven of Vatican II's Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) is "The Eschatological Nature of the Pilgrim Church and her Union with the Heavenly Church." It begins, "The Church . . . will receive its perfection only in the glory of heaven" (LG 48).
In other words, the Church in this world is provisional; it has a destiny and that destiny is heaven. The Church's holiness on earth is real, but imperfect. Like all God's creatures, the Church herself "takes her place among the creatures which groan and travail, yet await the revelation of the children of God."
Christ has come among us. He has suffered, died and rose to new life. The restoration of all things to their full goodness has already begun in Christ. The victory over sin and death has been won, even though evil continues to win more than the occasional skirmish.
Just as the Israelites journeyed from the slavery of Egypt into the Promised Land, so our journey looks toward eternity.
The Church is in that in-between time, the time in which the Holy Spirit is active and in which the Church's members are already partakers of glory. But because that glory is incomplete, the Church is in a state of groaning and waiting for its exile to come to an end.
As such, the Church is developing as it yearns for greater completeness. Its knowledge and self-awareness grow and it reforms itself as it seeks perfection.
This image of the pilgrim Church is badly needed in today's world and Church.
First, that eschatological consciousness of which Pope John Paul spoke is virtually non-existent in today's Western world. Our focus is on today and on material things. But today doesn't last and neither do material things. In fact, you're lucky if your mobile phone lasts till the end of your three-year contract.
We need an eternal awareness, mostly because eternity is what is most real and everything else is, in itself, of no lasting value. However, we also need that eternal awareness because it gives real meaning to our action in this world.
A yearning for eternity does not lead a person to hate this world. Rather, it leads us to seek, find and love the presence of God in this world all the more. The saints in heaven were people of joy when they lived in this world.
Now, that they are with God, those good actions they performed on earth have remained with them and have been cleansed and polished in order to shine ever more brightly in heaven.
Second, we need more of an eschatological consciousness in the Church. The Church can be too defensive about its faults and too hesitant to reform itself. Pope Francis has made us more aware of this. The Church is not a place to build a career; it is a place to grow in humility.
One of the great documents of the post-Vatican II Church was Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past, written, at Blessed John Paul's request, as part of the Church's preparation for the Jubilee Year 2000.
We need to read and reflect on that document as well as to realize that the faults of the Church are not all in the past. There are more than a few today.
The Church and its members have a need, the document said, "for continual renewal and for constant conversion." Whenever the Church tries to hide its faults, renewal and conversion are retarded. In today's world, it doesn't work anyway; the media has an ever-watchful eye for institutional sin.
However, if we take seriously the pilgrim nature of the Church, we will have our eyes on heaven and we will also be ever-conscious of the need for repentance and renewal.