The Communion of Saints, by Paul Thigpen
Catholics are often challenged by other Christians to defend the Church’s teaching about the Communion of Saints. “Why designate certain people with the title ‘saint’?” they ask. And “why should we pray to them and venerate them?” To answer these questions, we must start with a definition: What exactly is a saint?
The biblical Greek and Hebrew words in Scripture most often translated as “saints” literally mean “holy ones” (Acts 9:13) or “faithful ones” (1 Sm 2:9). In Catholic tradition, the word saints can be used in several ways, which are all reflected in Scripture.
St. Paul sometimes addressed his letters to “the saints” in a particular city (see Eph 1:1; Col 1:2). In this case, he was speaking of all Christians as the “holy ones,” because they have now been made holy by their baptism and are striving to become more holy.
The Catholic Church affirms, then, that all faithful Christians are “saints” in this sense. The vocation, the calling, to holiness is universal; God is speaking to all Christians when He says in Scripture, “Be holy because I [am] holy” (see 1 Pt 1:14-16).
Nevertheless, the word “saints” appears in some scriptural passages to have a narrower sense. St. Matthew’s Gospel refers to the “saints” who rose from the dead after Christ’s resurrection (see 27:52-53) as faithful departed who were being taken by Christ to heaven. St. Paul speaks of the “saints” who will accompany Christ from heaven when He returns to earth at the end of the world (1 Thes 3:13, RSV). And St. John uses the same term to refer to the “saints” who are now in heaven praying to God (Rv 5:8; 8:3, RSV).
It’s in this latter, narrower sense that the Catholic Church uses the term “saints” to refer to all those who have been perfected and are now face to face with God in heaven and have a share in His divine nature. When the Church celebrates the solemnity, or solemn feast, of All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1, these are the saints being honored that day: all those human beings who have left this life and are now in heaven with God — the ones whose names we know, and the ones whose names we don’t know.
In addition, there’s one more sense in which we use the term “saint,” in a way even narrower than the ways already described. The Catholic Church honors certain departed Christians with the formal title “saint.” This title indicates the Church’s confidence that the individual died in friendship with God and is now with Him in heaven.
Though the Church teaches that we can’t know for sure who may be in hell, the Church also insists that, in some cases, we can know for sure that certain individuals are in heaven. We refer to them by name as “St. So-and-So.”
So how does the Church gain the confidence that a particular person is in heaven? Various kinds of evidence are sought in the process called canonization, which leads to the formal recognition of a person’s sainthood. This evidence includes reliable testimony to the person’s extraordinary holiness in this life; indications that the person’s life has drawn others closer to God; and carefully documented miracles occurring after the person’s intercession has been asked for. Such miracles provide evidence that the person can offer effective assistance because he or she is now with God in heaven.
The Communion of Saints
Why is it important for the Church to designate certain individuals as “saints”? In this case, “saint” is actually much more than just a title of honor. Because the Church is confident that these “holy ones” are now in heaven, Catholics are urged not only to imitate their holiness, but also to ask for their assistance.
Those who have been perfected and are now face to face with God in heaven — that is, the “saints” in the latter sense of that word — have a share, Scripture tells us, in His divine nature (see 2 Pt 1:4). This insight helps us understand the Church’s teaching about what we call the Communion of Saints — that is, the fellowship, the sharing, of the saints.
The perfected saints, having a share in God’s own nature, have a share in His perfect love. They love those of us still on earth as God loves us. They want to help us; they want to see us reach heaven as well. So they have the desire to assist us in any way they can.
The perfected saints also have a share in God’s perfect knowledge. They are able, through His grace, to know what’s taking place on earth. God allows them to see and hear what He sees and hears, so they can hear the requests we may make of them.
The perfected saints have a share in God’s perfect, supernatural power. They are able, through His grace, to act on our behalf, to intervene in earthly affairs, just as He does. They don’t just pray for us; they can act on our behalf in other ways as well.
Scripture tells us, “The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful” (Jas 5:16). If that’s true of righteous people still on earth, think how powerful and effective is the prayer of the saints in heaven, who have been perfected in righteousness!
By His death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has conquered death. Death does not have the power to separate those who are in Christ from one another; in Him, they maintain a deep communion, whether they are in heaven, on earth or in the purgatorial process on their way to heaven.
For this reason, we on earth can help those in purgatory through our prayers and sacrifices. And those in heaven can help us on earth through their prayers and other interventions. As members of one Body, the Body of Christ, we are able to share the spiritual goods that we have through mutual prayer and assistance.
Some may ask why God would be willing to share this power. Why would He want in the first place to grant intercessory roles to the saints, the angels and even those of us still on earth?
The answer is simple: It reflects His desire, as St. Paul says, that we “attain to … mature manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13), who is himself the great Intercessor. The intercession of the saints is simply one way in which Christ’s body, with its members “joined and held together … builds itself up in love” (Eph 4:16). When we help one another, we display the love of God in which we share.
Some Christians think we shouldn’t ask the saints for help because God would somehow be displeased if we went to them for help rather than going directly to Him. But the truth is that all Christians ask other Christians on earth to pray for them and to help them in other ways. Yet when we do that, we don’t worry about not going to God directly for help. Why not? Because we understand the principle that it pleases God to have His children helping one another. That’s why He commands us in Scripture to “pray for one another” (Jas 5:16).
Veneration of the Saints
Showing honor is a natural human response to the goodness, even the greatness, of another human being. We honor the founders and other leaders of our country from throughout history. We name cities after them, write books about them, make statues of them to erect in public places. We paint pictures of them to display in schools and government buildings. We speak reverently and gratefully of them on patriotic holidays.
We do similar things for great scientists, great leaders of social movements, great artists and musicians. Why? Because it’s a matter of justice to recognize their gifts and contributions to us. Justice means giving to each his due, and we recognize that we owe much to these great human beings, and we want to say so in different ways.
In all these ways, we are venerating these great men and women — we are giving them honor. And so we shouldn’t be surprised that the Catholic Church venerates the great heroes of the Faith, who over the centuries have embodied in an extraordinary manner the way of life to which we’re called as Christians. Now that these men and women have been perfected by God and are saints standing face to face with Him in heaven, we have even more reason to venerate them.
Some may object that if we venerate the saints God will be jealous, because we should give honor to Him alone. But He is a God of justice, so it is His will that honor be given where honor is due. Scripture tells us, “Pay … honor to whom honor is due” (Rom 13:7).
Are we somehow denying God the honor that is due Him when we honor His saints? By no means! They are His perfected handiwork, His masterpiece (see Eph 2:10). When we praise the craftsmanship, all the accolades go to the Craftsman.
Meanwhile, as the old saying goes, “Imitation is the sincerest form of praise.” And so the Church urges us to imitate the saints, to follow their example of holiness. In the end, that’s the best way to honor them.