Understanding the communion of saints, by Father Michael Van Sloun
The communion of saints is a timely topic as November approaches, the month we celebrate All Saints (Nov. 1) and All Souls (Nov. 2) and pray for the dead. This core belief is stated in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”
The communion of saints is a “communion,” a union, a common bond, a profound connection, a great fellowship — shared among the “saints,” the holy ones, the Christian faithful, those who are filled with grace, members of the one body with Christ as the head.
The communion of saints is the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 946). It has three states or divisions:
1. the communion of saints of the living, those who are still on their pilgrim journey on earth
2. the communion of saints of the faithful departed, some of whom are being purified, those
3. the communion of saints who are enjoying eternal glory in the presence of God, those in
heaven (Catechism, No. 954).
Spanning the ages
The living are “saints” because they are baptized, members of the Body of Christ, members of the church, unified in faith and belief, praying and receiving the sacraments, and advancing in holiness. Their sainthood is real but unfinished; “they are saints in training” or “saints in progress.”
The dead, or the faithful departed, are saints because their time on earth is over. They are the ones who have completed the race, kept the faith, and have been given the crown of righteousness (2 Timothy 4:7,8). When they stood before the Son of Man, they were judged to be righteous and told, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). They are the sheep for whom the Good Shepherd freely laid down his life (John 10:1-18); the ones who have been escorted by Jesus to the Father’s house (John 14:1-3); and the great multitude which no one can count that are gathered around God’s throne (Revelation 7:9).
The communion of saints spans the ages. It unites the saints who are living now with all who have gone before, whether they departed yesterday, last year, a generation ago or centuries earlier. The communion also encompasses all places, wherever the saints may be: in different rooms in the same home, next-door neighbors, across the country or to the four corners of the world; and unites those on earth with those beyond, those in purgatory and those who have arrived at their eternal home.
The communion of the living has great concern for those who have died. While separated physically, the living are united to those who have gone before them in spirit through Christ. In their sorrow and grief, they long for the day of reunification in heaven, that where their ancestors have gone, they may also go.
The living express their concern for the faithful departed in prayer, offering prayers for those in purgatory to speed their loved ones on to the fullness of joy, and for those in heaven, offering prayers that they might intercede on their behalf before God. The saints in heaven watch over those who continue their journey on earth by the constant watchfulness and prayers of intercession.
United in worship
While the saints, those whose names are listed in the Book of Life, gather together in solemn assembly at the throne of God in the heavenly liturgy, bow down and worship God day and night, sing hymns of praise, cry out, “Honor, power, and might be to our God forever and ever” (Revelation 7:12) and exclaim, “Amen! Alleluia!” (Revelation 19:4), the saints on earth gather together around God’s altar at liturgy week after week, and in praise and worship cry out, “Glory to God in the highest! We worship you. We give you thanks. We praise you for your glory!” And continue, “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might!”
The same Christ who reigns on the throne in heaven with his saints above is made present in the Eucharist with his saints below, and when the faithful receive the Eucharist, there is holy Communion between all of God’s saints.