Foundations of the Faith Part 11: Understanding the Communion of Saints

This is the 11th of a 12-part series that will cover core teachings of the Catholic faith. Once a month from January through December, this space has explored a specific aspect of the Church’s teaching. To read and share this and the previous parts of the series, visit OSV.com/foundations.

Next month’s topic: The Four Last Things

November is a good month for Catholics to reflect on the Communion of Saints, for the Church’s liturgical calendar sets apart the first two days for remembering All Saints (Nov. 1) and All Souls (Nov. 2). All Saints is highlighted further by being designated as a holy day of obligation, meaning that members of the Church are obliged to participate in Mass on that day.

What’s all the fuss about? Haven’t all these people died? The answer, of course, is “yes”: the people who are remembered on these days have died. Yet, as one of the prayers for the funeral Mass proclaims, “life is changed, not ended” for these faithful departed (“Preface for Christian Death I”). Catholics believe that life continues after death and that a real communion exists among those who have not rejected Jesus. This bond is not destroyed by death because Jesus conquered death’s power through his resurrection.

What lies beyond

Life after death always has been a hope for human beings, a great many of whom throughout the centuries have recoiled at the thought of nothingness beyond the grave. A desire for the afterlife is reflected in ancient literature like Homer’s Odyssey (Odysseus traveling to the underworld) and even in the building of the Egyptian pyramids, which were thought to be landmarks that helped the soul travel to and from the hereafter.

With Jesus, the hope of eternal life is realized, as he says to his disciples before his passion and resurrection:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be” (Jn 14:1-3).

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A stained-glass window in the German Church in Stockholm depicts the ascension of Christ. Shutterstock

St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, defends the teaching against naysayers: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then neither has Christ been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then empty too is our preaching; empty, too, your faith. ... But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:13-14, 20).

Jesus is the life of the world, and anyone who remains in him — before or after death — continues to share in his life: “All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:3-4). Indeed, nothing can separate a person from Christ except one’s free decision to reject him (Rom 8:35-39).

St. Paul uses the image of a human body to describe the bond between Jesus and his followers: “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ” (1 Cor 12:12). The words of St. Paul, which describe the spiritual reality of living in Christ, prepared the way for the Church to articulate its teaching on the Communion of Saints.

“All, indeed, who are of Christ and who have his Spirit form one Church and in Christ cleave together. So it is that the union of the wayfarers with the brethren who sleep in the peace of Christ is in no way interrupted …” (CCC, Nos. 954-955).

Christ’s holiness shared

When one reads or hears the phrase “the Communion of Saints,” it may be that one thinks only of those people whom the Church remembers on All Saints Day. Certainly these — as well as all souls — are included, for the word “saint” is not exclusive to those declared so by the Church, as will be made clear later in this article. “The Communion of Saints” is a much broader and multivalent reality that, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, can be organized under two main headings: “sancta,” or communion in holy things; and “sancti,” communion among holy persons (CCC, No. 948).

As to which comes first, there is no chicken or egg problem to solve, for the “holy things” are what build up and unite the “holy persons.” In their 1987 “A Catholic Catechism for Adults” (Igantius) the German bishops wrote that the Church “exists because of a common sharing in the goods [or sancta] of salvation, especially in the Eucharist.”

These goods are made available to the members of the Church through Christ, who remains the head of all the faithful who form his body (CCC, No. 947). St. Thérèse of Lisieux, known popularly as the Little Flower, had a deep appreciation for the “sancta.” In her characteristically bold manner, she seized upon this teaching and prayed to God, saying:

“Since you loved me so much as to give me your only son as my savior and my spouse, the infinite treasures of his merits are mine. I offer them to you with gladness. ... I offer you, too, all the merits of the saints (in heaven and on earth), their acts of love, and those of the holy angels” (Act of Oblation to Merciful Love).

“They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

  — Acts of the Apostles 2:42-47

Thérèse understood that she could receive the sancta and then offer them back to God for the salvation of all her brothers and sisters on earth and for her own salvation. The gifts were hers not because she earned them; they were hers because she was in Christ, and therefore she could claim the sancta as her own, just as anyone in Christ can. These “sancta” are commonly summarized as the Christian faith, the sacraments and charity.

dome
Giorgio Vasari’s Last Judgment is located beneath the dome of the Florence Cathedral in Florence, Italy. Luca Grandinetti / Shutterstock

Journey together

The faith of Christ is the first and foundational good of salvation that has been handed on generation after generation, beginning with the apostles who first encountered Jesus (Rom 10:17). The Apostles’ Creed, which is rooted in the apostles’ experience of Christ and recited in the Church’s liturgies, serves as one of the first summaries of the Faith. In addition to stating what Christians believe about the Holy Trinity and the Church, the Apostles’ Creed also affirms a number of other Church teachings: “the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” This creed, or any other creed approved by the Church, does not exhaust the Faith, for the content of the Faith is also handed on via sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition. However, by providing a written list of items held in common, the creed establishes a base from which the communion of believers can be built and strengthened.

If faith is the foundational good of salvation, then the Church’s seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, reconciliation, anointing of the sick, holy matrimony and holy orders) could be called the “good” that keeps the disciple on the path of Christ. Hearing the word of God and accepting it into one’s life have to be reinforced through perseverance in the grace of Jesus.

Therefore, so that faith does not wither and die, the believer must encounter Christ continually, which happens, among other ways, through the sacraments (which, in turn, enable the disciple to bring Jesus to others). Needless to say, God is not bound by the sacraments and can dispense his grace in any way he wants, but he revealed the sacred mysteries as a privileged means by which Christ offers himself and his grace to the world: through the sacraments the believer receives Jesus’ spirit, his forgiveness, his healing love, a participation in his life of service, and his body and blood. As one participates in and yields himself or herself more deeply to the sacraments, particularly the Mass, he or she is brought into communion with Jesus and all who abide in him (CCC, No. 950).

All Saints
When we consider the saints, we may fall into an attraction/repulsion dynamic. On the one hand, we admire the saints for their witness and courage: Thomas More opposing King Henry VIII, Edith Stein standing up to the Nazis, Mother Teresa protecting the dignity of the poor, and so many others who chose to honor God even when it was inconvenient or it cost them their lives. On the other hand, the very fervor we find inspiring can also prompt us to keep them at a distance. We say: They are a special class of people; they’ve been given extra grace; I could never be like them. But this is not true; Jesus calls each person to be holy and to honor God above all else, and he gives us the grace we need to do so. The crucial characteristic is desire. What is our deepest desire? Which desires do we feed? The saints detach themselves from possessions in this world — understanding the passing nature of all things – and concentrate their desire on God. This allows them the freedom to be in the world – working for peace, justice, charity – while anticipating heaven. Far from being people with extra special graces, they show what ordinary human beings can do when all their desires are subordinated to God.

Sacramental love

Receiving the sacraments well is manifested by the disciple through the indisputable proof of active charity. The Lord says, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). If one is in communion with Jesus and the members of his body, then one is moved to share God’s grace with others. Charity is one of the goods of salvation that is given freely because it has been received without cost. And by “charity” the Church does not mean simply a token gift from a person with means to a person with nothing. Rather, “charity” means an offering of one’s whole self to one’s brothers and sisters for the good of all. A person may have a particular charism to be shared for the benefit of the community; or material possessions like food, clothing, and shelter; or spiritual gifts like mercy, forgiveness, patience and kindness. Prayer, too, is a gift of charity that should be shared between and among the members of Christ and offered to the world. The main principle to remember is what St. Paul told the Romans: “None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself” (Rom 14:7). The members of Christ’s body are to love one another as Christ loved everyone (Jn 13:34-35).

The full acceptance and practice of the sancta builds up the sancti, or the communion among holy persons. Since the communion originates in and is sustained by Jesus, who is alive in the communion of the Holy Trinity (with the Father and the Holy Spirit), two consequences are important to keep in mind. First, everyone in communion with Christ is called a “saint,” which means “holy one,” because he or she shares in the goods of salvation and is destined for heaven (See Eph 1:1; 1 Cor 1:2; Col 1:2).

However, the Church also uses “saint” to distinguish a certain group of people among all the holy ones. Second, these holy ones are not limited to the faithful members of the Church on earth. All who have died in Christ are among the communion of saints too.

Gift and task

The Church, grounding its teaching in the words of Christ — “He is not God of the dead but of the living” (Mk 12:27) — has taught always that the communion of the saints is experienced in three states: the earthly pilgrimage; the purification in purgatory; and the glory of heaven.

The saints on earth are in a very different situation than the saints undergoing purification or experiencing glory. The difference is not the simple fact that they have yet to pass through death; it’s that the saints on earth still have the possibility of choosing to walk away from Christ. One can hope that a person who has yielded to Christ would remain in Christ always, but people like Judas, who did betray Christ, should keep one from presumption (for the record, only God knows for certain the ultimate fate of Judas, who could have made a near-death conversion just as the thief on the cross did).

The German bishops in “A Catholic Catechism for Adults” offer some sobering advice for those still walking the path of Christ: the communion of saints is “both a gift and a task.” Sharing in the gift means persevering at the task, which is loving God and neighbor according to the way of Jesus. Still, the saints on earth have every reason to be full of hope and joy as they make their journey toward heaven, not only because Jesus said that his way is easy and light as compared to living without him (see Mt 11:30), but also because God “wills everyone to be saved” (1 Tim 2:4). Jesus is the evidence of God’s will, and the guarantee of salvation for those who remain in him.

For those who did remain in Christ and persevered in charity, the passage through death will bring them either to the state of purgatory or the glory of heaven. It should be noted that the people in purgatory and heaven were not necessarily members of the visible Church on earth. Both Jesus (Mt 25:31-46) and the Church (Lumen Gentium, No. 16) make it clear that those who love like Christ, even though they are not conscious of him, are members of his mystical body. Indeed, they responded to the offer of God’s grace, albeit without knowing explicitly the source. Members of the Church, however, are charged with making Jesus known through lives of charity.

Purification

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Pope St. John Paul II greets St. Teresa of Calcutta at the Vatican. CNS photo via L’Osservatore Romano

Loving like Christ, whether one was a member of the Church or not, does not mean that one did so without errors or even sin. Most people mature in love over a lifetime, and the growth usually comes with a lot of pain and learning from mistakes. However, there is a big difference between one who has given himself or herself over to sin and one who continues to struggle. As difficult as it may be to imagine, a person may use his or her God-given freedom to reject God. If it is done with full knowledge and full consent, then that person will suffer eternal separation from God.

The person who never gives in to sin and tries to change for the better, all the while being attentive to the needs of one’s brothers and sisters, may die with the need for further growth. The Church calls this state of purification “purgatory,” and the people in this state are those who the church refers to as All Souls.

“Purgatory” is not a state of punishment. It is more accurately seen as a place where God purifies and makes people ready to enjoy full and eternal communion with him. An analogy might be a farmer who has been working in the fields all day — he is sweaty and grimy — and he needs to take a shower before sitting at the dinner table. Purgatory is a loving gift from a father who wants his children to feel completely at home in his presence. Both the Old and New Testaments (2 Mc 12:46; Mt 12:32) affirm the truth of the Church’s teaching on purgatory. In fact, the living are told to pray for those in purgatory that their purification may be swift, and the Church takes it for granted that these souls who are near to God offer prayers for their brothers and sisters on earth.

The Church also teaches that there are people who enjoy the glory of heaven now. They include, of course, those who have passed through purgatory, but the Church recognizes that some people yielded themselves so completely to Christ while living on earth that they entered into God’s presence immediately after death. First among them is Mary, who never ceased to praise and thank God, her savior (Lk 1:47), and who chose freely every day to accept God’s grace and to reject sin (the Church teaches that Mary received the merits of Jesus before the world did: see CCC, Nos. 490-491). She is unique in her freedom from sin, but many others such as John the Baptist and Martha, Maximilian Kolbe and Mother Teresa responded to God with great generosity and concern for his people.

The Church has declared them, as well as hundreds of their brothers and sisters, as saints in the specific sense of those people who not only live in the presence of God but also offer an example of Christian discipleship. These are the very ones the Church celebrates on All Saints Day. Like the saints in purgatory, the saints in heaven have not ended their good works, but continue to intercede for those still journeying toward full communion with God.

“As generous distributors of God’s manifold grace, put your gifts at the service of one another, each in the measure he has received. The one who speaks is to deliver God’s message. The one who serves is to do it with the strength provided by God. Thus, in all of you God is to be glorified through Jesus Christ.”

— 1 Peter 4:8-11a

Life in the Trinity

The Church’s rich teaching on the Communion of Saints is first and foremost a recognition of the Holy Trinity’s deep love for each and every human being. When human beings at the dawn of creation chose to reject God, God did not turn away from them. Rather he chose to forgive them and offer them a way to return to him, all the while respecting the freedom he gave them. The human race, because of God’s gift of Christ, is not without an eternal home or a way to get there. Jesus has provided the goods of salvation through which has been built up a holy people, the visible face of whom is the Church. Moreover, the saints of God persevere in his grace to receive salvation for themselves and to share it with everyone. They look forward to the image of heaven described by John in the Book of Revelation: “I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb. ... Amen. Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power, and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen.’”

David Werning writes from Virginia.