What Does Militant Mean in the Catholic Church?

First Communion is the sacrament by which the church militant unites with Christ.
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The Catholic Church is militant. That statement may surprise some who perceive the church as somewhat traditional, staid and formal. But, in this case, “militant” refers to one of the three types of spiritual churches within Catholicism that coexist to create, when united, the Communion of Saints. In Catholic theology, the three branches of the church are militant, triumphant and suffering, comprised of the living, the souls in heaven and the souls in purgatory, respectively. The militant church is the visible church that fights a daily battle in the world against evil and sin. Though life is difficult, in this Catholic perspective, the burden lessens for people because the other parts of the unified church assist the militants. The militant church is thus “militant” because it fights a spiritual and unseen battle, through prayer.

1 Communion of Saints

When the three churches pray for one another, it is the Communion of Saints. The souls in heaven make up the triumphant church. This church in heaven prays for the living, or militant church. The triumphant church in heaven intercedes when requested to help the living fight the battle against evil on Earth. Meanwhile, the living, in the militant church, pray for those living in purgatory, the waiting station, of sorts, before heaven. When those in purgatory enter heaven, they, in turn, join the triumphant church and return the prayers of the militant church. This Communion of Saints represents a symbiotic unity among all those of the Catholic faith.

2 Church Militant in Mass

The church militant is a visible church fighting an invisible battle. Catholics attend mass regularly to unite physically the three churches. The Holy Eucharist, known popularly as communion, is a central part of the mass celebration. Communion, in which members receive via wine and bread what they consider the real blood and body of Jesus, the Christian savior, is a physical representation of the united church. Catholics imbibe Jesus to become one with him, as are those of the church triumphant.

3 Church Militant in Funerals

The church militant conducts spiritual battle in funeral services, as well. During the funeral ceremony, Catholics pray for the souls of the departed. They do this in case the deceased has any remaining sins, or evil deeds, of which to take account. The goal is to help the deceased enter heaven.

4 Responsibility to Souls in Purgatory

Just as the triumphant church aids the living, the church suffering in purgatory receives help from the militant church. Souls that are unprepared to enter heaven, perhaps because of sins, enter purgatory. No one but God knows how long any particular soul is to remain in purgatory. To help expedite this period, Catholics in the militant church pray for the forgiveness of sins. Since dead people can no longer confess their sins to a priest, the Catholic means of seeking forgiveness, the living intercede on their behalf.

David Kenneth has a Ph.D. in history. His work has been published in "The Journal of Southern History," "The Georgia Historical Quarterly," "The Southern Historian," "The Journal of Mississippi History" and "The Oxford University Companion to American Law." Kenneth has been working as a writer since 1999.