Most Catholics know to speak of the Church on earth as the Church Militant. They know, too, that the Church in heaven is the Church Triumphant.

But it’s important for us to realize that there are not two churches. There is only one, and it’s the heavenly, earthly communion of saints. Scripture tells us this. In the Book of Revelation and the Letter to the Hebrews, we see the common interaction between congregations in this world and the great cloud of witnesses in the state we call the “afterlife.”

There is one Church, and its members, together, constitute the family of God.

I was reminded of this recently when I heard from a woman I’ve known for many years. On a holy impulse, she had commissioned a sacred image depicting Blessed Father Stanley Rother, the Oklahoma priest who died as a martyr in 1981 and was beatified in 2017.

She has a deep devotion to him. So she commissioned a renowned iconographer to produce the image.

But now she had a problem: Where should the image find a home?

It seemed obvious to me that it should reside in Blessed Stanley’s alma mater, Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. “The Mount” had accepted him after his previous seminary counseled him to withdraw for academic reasons. 

Through his years of education, the young man had excelled in his extracurricular assignments. He served eagerly and skillfully as plumber, groundskeeper, bookbinder, and handyman. He was less handy with his studies; but his bishop was certain that Stanley had a vocation, and that he had what it took to be a good and faithful priest.

Ordained in 1963, he served for five years in Oklahoma parishes before applying to fill an opening in his archdiocese’s Guatemalan mission. There he would live among the very poor — in a land torn by civil strife.

He promoted the good of his people in every way. He learned to speak Spanish as well as the local native language. He founded a hospital. His parish housed a radio station that broadcast daily lessons in math and Spanish.

For this he drew the attention of those who were suspicious of efforts on behalf of the poor. Suspected of revolutionary activity, Stanley was murdered in his rectory on July 28, 1981. He was 46 years old.

Even though I was not Catholic at the time of his martyrdom, he is my brother. It was good for me to draw near to him through a phone call from a longtime friend. It was an honor for me to receive his sacred image and transport it to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, a half-day’s drive from my home.

The icon bears the inscription: “The Shepherd Cannot Run at the First Sign of Danger.” It’s from a letter Stanley wrote home to his family.

Now it will serve as a message to all the men who see it in that seminary as they are formed into priests. It will serve as a moment of heavenly, earthly communion.