What Is the Communion of Saints?

What Is the Communion of Saints?

The Biblical concept of the Church has always been seen as a community of believers. The beginnings of the Church on Pentecost as portrayed in Acts 2 probably telescopes a series of events that took place over a period of time in a less dramatic style. However these facts are apparent. There were Jews present from many different nations. “Yet each has heard them speaking in his own tongue” (Acts 2:6). The curse of the Tower of Babel was removed (“Yet each has heard them speaking in his own tongue”). “They devoted themselves to the apostles instruction and the communal life, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). 

Paul writes: “It was in one spirit that all of us, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, were baptized into one body.” He adds: “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it: if one member is honored, all the members share in joy” (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Saints of the Old Testament

One of the qualities of saintliness is a heroic life of faith. “Faith is confident assurance concerning for what we hope for, and a conviction about things we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). The writer then lists some of the great figures of Hebrew history; Enoch, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob and even Rahab, the prostitute, and others. This is followed by these words: “Therefore for our art we are surrounded by this cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every encumbrance of sin which clings to us and persevere in running the race which lies ahead” (Hebrews 12:1). 

The saints to emulate for the early Christians were the great figures of Hebrew history.  The writer also notes that in living our faith our blood may be shed (Hebrews 12:03-04). The Church venerates Isaac, the Maccabean brothers, and John the Baptist who were all martyrs, as saints.

The Christian Martyrs

The first and supreme form of Christian witness is the shedding of blood for the faith following the example of the Lord. Ignatius of Antioch in the early second century as a prisoner on the way to Rome for trial, begged the Roman Church not to intervene with their influence in order to save his life. He looked forward to his death for the faith. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, second half of the second century, is the first documentation of the veneration of martyrs. The practice of the veneration of the saints began with the cult of the martyrs. 

Since the second century in the Eastern Church and the third century in the West, it was customary to celebrate the Eucharist upon the tomb of famous martyrs. This practice is reflected in the custom today of having a sealed relic of some saint mounted in the top center of the altar surface over which the corporal is spread during the mass. In the liturgical calendar the saint’s day is their day of death which was considered their birthday (dies natalis).

The Confessors

As the persecutions ceased and the Church was recognized and protected by the civil authorities, there were few if any deaths for the faith. The Church then saw that living an uncompromising and radical Christian life was in essence an unbloody martyrdom. There were those whose ascetic life was a living sacrifice to the Lord.  The first in the East of the saints in this category was Gregory Thayumaturge, died c. AD 270 and in the West, was Sylvester I, died 335. Martin of Tours died in 397, Ambrose died in 397, and August died in 430. 

These confessors of the faith were next in rank to the martyrs. They were seen as holy ones living as a contradiction to the sinful world around them. They were to be admired and emulated as ideals of Christian living.

Aren’t They Dead?

The human being is made up of a body and soul. At death the body dies and suffers corruption. The Church has always taught that the soul is immortal. It lives on (Luke 23:42; 2 Corinthians 5:6-8; Revelations 6:9; Revelations 20:4). Our oldest creed refers only to the resurrection of the body. The reformers defined death as the destruction of the whole person, both body and soul (see pamphlet: Prayer for the Dead). 

However we believe that we are united to those who have gone on before us—those in heaven and those in the preparatory state of purgatory. We all share in the life of Christ whether here on earth or in the hereafter. The exception would be those who died unrepentant and are damned. 

The early Christians called each other saints, but in later history it became a special designation as previously noted. Today the formal process of canonization conducted by Rome involves an in-depth investigation of every aspect of the candidate’s life, and there must be two miracles attributed to their intercession. 

At baptism it is customary to choose a patron saint for the infant or adult. If one chooses, another patron saint is added at confirmation. The most honored saint is Mary, the Mother of the Lord. Many churches have saints’ names.

Do We Pray to Saints?

No! We are asking them to pray for us. The Hail Mary concludes: “Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” The saints are intercessors. Only God can answer prayer. The liturgy always asks the saints to pray for us through the Father. There are patron saints for every trade and profession. There are saints that are designated for special causes.

Vatican II Teaching

“Those in heaven are more closely united with Christ. They establish the whole Church more firmly in holiness, lend nobility to the worship which the Church offers on earth to God, and in many ways contribute to its greater up building (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). For after they have been received into their heavenly home and are present to the Lord through him and with him and in him, they do not cease to intercede with the Father for us. Rather they show forth the merits which they won on earth through the one Mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ. There they served God in all things and fill up on their flesh whatever was lacking in the sufferings of Christ in behalf of his body which is the Church (Colossians 1:24).  Thus by their brotherly and sisterly interest, our weakness is very greatly strengthened” (The Church VII, paragraph 49). 

Remember, there is a fine line between the teachings of the Church and folklore. The catechism says: “Since all the faithful form one body, the good of each is communicated to the other...but the most important member is Christ” (paragraph 947).

"What Is the Communion of Saints?" is one of the pamphlets on the biblical foundations of the Catholic Church written May 2008 to Nov 2010 by Deacon Paul Carlson of Minneapolis, Minnesota's St Lawrence Catholic Church / Newman Center, a Paulist Foundation. (St Lawrence is the Catholic Church of Southeast Minneapolis and is right in the heart of "Dinkytown USA".)

This blog post is a memorial serialization of those pamphlets written by Deacon Paul Carlson at the request of than Pastor/Director Fr John J. Behnke, who asked Deacon Paul to write brief answers to questions University students often encountered as Catholics.

At couple of weeks before Deacon Paul's death, he said: "If there are any financial gains made from the blog serialization of my pamphlets, please have the money given to St. Lawrence Parish and Newman Center or Paulist Fathers, because what they do is so important." If you can, send memorials to St. Lawrence Parish and Newman Center or Paulist Fathers at 1203 Fifth Street, S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55414. 

Remember Deacon Paul Carlson in your prayers, as well as all the other souls of the faithful departed, who have died in the grace of Jesus Christ.

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