As mentioned in the series called Paradigm shifts, the Catholic Church believes that the Church is made up of three major parts: The Church Militant, the Church Expectant, and the Church Triumphant. The first are those Christians waging spiritual warfare here on Earth, while the last is that standing in the presence of God interceding on the Church’s behalf. The penitent Church in the middle is that in purgatory.
When we read Hebrews 12:1 about a great cloud of witnesses, Church teaching understands this to mean the communion of saints, particularly the Church triumphant whose righteous prayers avail on our behalf. The author of the Hebrews recounts some of these witnesses including Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and others.
12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, * 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
One analogy is to see these communion of saints in the heavenly realm cheering us on as if we are in some sort of marathon or sporting event running toward the finish line. This correlates with Paul’s analogy in 1 Cor 9:24
24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; 27 but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
I tend to think of the communion of saints in different terms, not as an active cheering section but a model of leadership as expressed in their Earthly life. Despite the gates of Hell prevailing on the world in which they lived, the saints (Church triumphant) prove that men and women like you and me can run the race and win. Maximillian Kolbe, Theresa of Calcutta, Thomas More, Martin Pascual, and countless others (including Peter, Paul, .. Cosmae, Damian, … Lucy, Agnes and those declared in the Canon of the Mass).
The image of St. Thomas More hangs on the wall above my computer in my home office to remind me that not all men have a price. The image of Martin Pascual is uploaded on this blog (see Hagiography) as a reminder to me that there is a life that transcends this one and we can meet our end with that reality painted on our face. I don’t mind that they may be cheering me on and praying on my behalf, but I view their life as one that I too can emulate, and, God willing (yes, with my participation), I too will subordinate the worldly pull for a greater prize. The Communion of the Saints is not just doctrine I adhere to as one of the faithful, but it is just one of the many great treasures of the Church I possess as my patrimony and that of all Christians should they accept it.