The Individual and the Masses: How the Communion of Saints is a Communion of Persons
How easy it is for so many communicants, when reciting the Apostles’ Creed during Mass1 to slide over the phrase “Communion of Saints.” This is a somewhat neglected phrase that is rich in both meaning and application. It warrants more careful attention, being a jewel placed next to many other jewels, but having its own distinctive radiance that should be better appreciated than it usually is.
In his book, A Philosophy of Form, the British philosopher and convert to Catholicism, E. I. Watkin, makes the following observation: “Christianity, resting as it does on the double basis of the infinite worth of the individual soul and the organism which is the mystical body of Christ, is a synthesis of individualism and socialism.” Watkin helps us better see that the Communion of Saints is communion in Christ through a common membership in the Mystical Body. It is the fulfillment of that deep desire which stirs in the human heart for a perfect society. It is an ideal, but one that gives direction to all of our social efforts.
We might quibble with Watkin’s word “socialism,” freighted as it is with modern connotations. But the Communion of Saints, with the Mystical Body of Christ, refers to a communion of persons and not a form of government that is inimical to the individual. Watkin is perhaps using “socialism” to indicate the form of government that results when the infinite worth of the individual is denied and all that is left is a spiritless collectivity of human beings. On the other hand, he may be pointing to the synthesis of individual worth and communion which offers us both an image of the person as well as one of an organic society. The person, as St. John Paul II took great pains to elucidate, put simply, is a dynamic synthesis between individuality and communal responsibility.
As Karl Wojtyla, in his book, The Acting Person, the late great pontiff expatiated on this notion of the “person” as the one realistic alternative to Cartesian individualism or Marxist communism. For Wojtyla, “communion” (or “totalism,” as he called it), differs from “communism” inasmuch as it integrates itself with the uniqueness of each individual. Communism suppresses the worth of the individual. According to St. John Paul II, the individual does not sacrifice any of his uniqueness when he exercises his social responsibilities, but through that same uniqueness the individual fulfills those responsibilities. Man’s destiny, therefore, is twofold: it is to be himself in all his uniqueness and to participate responsibly in the good of society.
The 19th century French thinker, founder of positivism, and father of modern sociology, Auguste Comte, erroneously believed that the Catholic Church placed too much emphasis on the importance of the God-oriented individual soul and consequently ignored the importance of the cohesiveness of society. Therefore, he exchanged what he called the “slaves of God” for the “servants of Humanity.” His inability to integrate communal responsibility with individuality led him to reject God. Similarly, Karl Marx emphasized the importance of the collectivity to the exclusion of the individual. He absorbed the individual into a class.
According to St. John Paul II, the individual does not sacrifice any of his uniqueness when he exercises his social responsibilities, but through that same uniqueness the individual fulfills those responsibilities.
Both Comte and Marx held that the notion of God, which, in their view, is a fiction, prevented human beings from being free to be themselves. They held that this fictional God compelled them to live in a way that was inauthentic. “I speak of individuals,” Marx stated, in his Communist Manifesto, “insofar as they are personifications of special classes of relations and individuals.” Comte stated in his Catéchisme positive that “our young disciples will be accustomed, from childhood, to look on the triumph of sociability over personality as the grand object of man.”
The American experience is quite the opposite. The theme of “self-reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ideal for the individual, is enshrined today in America’s inordinate preoccupation with “rights” over “duties,” with “choice” over “responsibilities,” and with “privacy” over “public service.” Twentieth-century Austrian thinker Viktor Frankl was a Holocaust survivor who saw firsthand what happens when the community is divorced from its responsibilities to the individual, and vice versa. He once remarked that the United States should have a “Statue of Responsibility” on the West Coast to counterbalance the “Statue of Liberty” on the East Coast.
But in the Communion of Saints—as professed in the Apostles’ Creed and celebrated especially during the various liturgies in the month of November—we have a perfect model of balance between the community and the individual.
Personality and politics, together, should aspire to the realization of a blending of complementary opposites. The dynamic unity of individual uniqueness and the social responsibility of the person form a prototype of what is needed in society. Nonetheless, this ideal, historically, has proven to be most elusive. Various societies have oscillated between too much freedom and too little order, on the one hand, and too much order and too little freedom on the other.
But in the Communion of Saints—as professed in the Apostles’ Creed and celebrated especially during the various liturgies in the month of November—we have a perfect model of balance between the community and the individual. Indeed, the Church’s integration of the infinite worth of the individual with the concept signified by the Communion of Saints within the Mystical Body of Christ, serves as a blueprint which is critically needed for both the person and for society. To see this model in its natural habitat, so to speak, we return to the Mass and consider the significance of singing, especially in a choir. Music itself is a blending of the mind, body, and spirit. The distinguished violinist Jehudi Menuhin has remarked, “If people sing together, they have a better feeling of individual co-ordination as well as within the body of the group. I have never met a member of a choir who was depressed.” If Menuhin is exaggerating here, if even just a bit, about not ever meeting a choir member who was depressed, we can easily forgive him. After all, his main point is well taken. Singing in a choir is the harmonious blending of individual voices with the form of music which, in itself, is an organic unity. Here, personal uniqueness and a shared meaning come together in a pattern of wholeness. It is a most satisfactory experience because it is a particular realization of integrated personality. And that is who we really are: integrated persons. We are not mere individuals nor are we soulless members of a collectivity. Music, especially within the context of the Mass, incarnates, in an appropriate way, the infinite worth of the individual soul within another heavenly context: the Communion of Saints.