“You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” -attributed to Leon Trotsky

     There’s a battle raging, and we’re all part of it, like it or not.  The growing intensity of the Culture War that’s engulfing our society is just a surface manifestation of the real war that’s been underway since Satan was cast out of Heaven. In my recent post on St. Ignatius Loyola we looked at the idea of being a “Soldier for Christ”.  This is not simply an analogy; in fact, we could argue that the wars we fight in this world are the images of the great eternal combat, the true war, between the army of God and the forces of the Devil.

The Church Triumphant

     The term Church Militant expresses the understanding that waging this spiritual war is our primary occupation on earth.  The Church Militant is one part of a traditional tripartite division of the Communion of Saints, which is the Church throughout time: the Church Milititant (those of us still living in this world), the Church Penitent (the souls in Purgatory), and the Church Triumphant (those Christians in the presence of God in Heaven). “Militant” means “soldiering” in Latin. Being a Christian in this life means being on the front lines.  Just as in a modern army there are as many as ten support troops for every front line soldier with his rifle, so in the Communion of Saints the Church Penitent and the Church Triumphant have our back.

     It is also true that for every officer there are numerous enlisted soldiers.  We can see parallells in the Church Triumphant. There are many saints who have played a large leadership role in the life of the Church, and who are well-known to most Catholics (although not as familiar as they once were). St. Clare of Assisi, whose feast we celebrate today [August 11th], is one of these officers of the Church Triumphant. If we look at the list of saints for today’s date at catholic.org, however, we’ll find fourteen other canonized saints who share the feast day with her.  These are the enlisted men and women among the canonized saints, whose names and stories we may not know, but who all played their part in the eternal war.  They all intercede for us still, and their lives can serve as model and inspiration.

St. Equitius

     One of those fourteen foot soldiers of the Church Triumphant who has his feast day today is St. Equitius, whose story is told by Pope St. Gregory the Great in his Dialogues. It seems Equitius was one of those holy men and women who sought a life solitude with The Lord by living as a hermit. As is often the way, the hermit’s sanctity attracted a growing number of followers, whom he eventually organized into a formal monastic establishment at Terni.  Despite the leadership role that was thrust upon him Equitius never received priestly ordination.  His lack of holy orders prompted complaints, and so the Pope sent a priest, a certain Julian, to investigate.  Before Julian’s investigation reached a conclusion, however, the issue was settled by the Pope himself, who was prompted by a vision to bestow his blessing upon the saint.  By the time of his death in 570 Equitius had founded a number of monasteries.

     There is something very inspiring about the story of St. Equitius that resonates beyond his time and place.  We have the individual believer, Equitius, who through his “reputation for sanctity” draws more people out of the world and into the Church, and strengthens the faith of those who already believe.  He models the mission given to all Christians to sanctify the world.  He is a layman, however, and some people are afraid that he is straying into territory rightly reserved for ordained clergy.  The Pope, who embodies the clergy’s threefold mission of sanctifying, governing, and teaching investigates; under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, he gives his assent and support to St. Equitius’ holy work.

     This is a nice illustration, I think, of a couple of simple but important ideas.  First, we are all called to sanctity and to mission.  At the same time, we all have different roles, and we need to respect the individual missions God has entrusted to each of us.  There is a lot of confusion in recent years about the importance of preserving, and observing, these important distinctions.  Sometimes the laity’s call to holiness is misunderstood to mean that lay people should be moving into the sanctuary and acting more like priests, who are in turn expected to behave more like the laity.  

The Church Militant (detail from featured image top of page)

     But that’s not how it’s supposed to work. Above I compared the Church Triumphant to an army, with the great saints the officers and the more obscure saints the common soldiers.   The analogy applies even more fittingly to the Church Militant, the “soldiering” Church here on earth.  Here the bishops and priests are the officers, who train us lay people and lead us into battle; we are the common soldiers who apply our “training” to the fight on the front lines, i.e., in the world.  If instead we try to knock our general off his horse and hop up in his place, we are really fighting for the enemy.  The army is only successful when everyone carries out his or her own assigned mission within the chain of command.

     Saint Equitius understood that his mission to sanctify the world by living a life of holiness and attracting others to that life was more importasnt than his desire for solitude, and likewise he did not seek for himself the authority or status of the priesthood.  His superior officer, the Pope, yielded to higher authority when he suspended his own investigation after receiving a dispatch from Supreme Headquarters ordering him to give his blessing to the saint. We all serve our Lord best when we are faithful to the role we have been given. That’s a good lesson for all of us.

Featured image top of page: Blessed is the Host of the King of Heaven (alternatively known as Church Militant). Russian icon, ca. 1550 – 1560. Tretyakov Gallery.

I haven’t been able to find out the source of the image of The Church Triumphant that appears in the body of the article above. I welcome any information on the artist or location.

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