Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Being in communion is the heart of Catholicism.
We become one body in Christ at Baptism and we continue sharing
that common life forever, beyond death. We are aware of this connectedness
with one another every time we say in the creed: "I believe in
the communion of saints."
We speak of this community each time we pray at
Mass when we pray for the living and recall "those who have gone
before us marked with the sign of faith."
When we baptize a baby we welcome him or her to
the communion of saints. And when we attend a funeral we know
that the one whose life we are celebrating is now moving from
the blessed on earth to the blessed in heaven.
From the day of its initiation, the church emphasized
community. After Pentecost, the apostles went out to share the
Good News with others. They gathered together in homes to celebrate
the Eucharist, which made them one.
Communal living was the norm in the Jerusalem church.
They saw themselves as establishing the reign of God in the world.
They cared for each other, worked for each other, died for each
other. They were one community.
It was understood that all Christians were bonded
together and had obligations to each other. As people died, they
had not left the community, but had entered another state, just
as Jesus had at the resurrection.
Origins in the New Testament
In the Letter to the Romans, Paul tells us: "Just
as each of us is one body with many members and all the members
have the same function so too we, though many, are one body in
Christ and individually members one of another. We have gifts
that differ according to favor bestowed on each of us."
Paul leaves no doubt that those gifts are to be
used in the service of the group. Members of this common body
had obligations to build up the community and were called "saints."
This comes directly out of the Jewish idea of being a holy nation,
a covenanted people. The "saints" were those who had inherited
Paul's letters are addressed to various local communities
under the title of "saints" (Rom 1:7;1Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1; Eph
1:1; Phil 1:1; Col 1:2). It was also applied to those whom Christians
served. Paul made a collection in Corinth for the relief of the
saints in Jerusalem (1Cor 16:1).
In time the word "saint" was used to designate those
"who had fallen asleep," and were now enjoying their reward. "Saints"
were not only of this world, but also of the world to come. A
bond existed between them and the living community. St. Paul tells
the Thessalonians: "We do not want you to be unaware, brothers,
about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve
like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus
died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him
those who have fallen asleep. Indeed, we tell you this, on the
word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the
coming of the Lord, will surely not precede those who have fallen
asleep" (2 Thessalonians 4:13-15).
In the beginning of the church's history many witnessed
to their faith by giving their lives. Most of the followers of
Christ were martyred rather horrendously.
Some early saints were stoned, as was Stephen. In
the Acts of the Apostles we read: "They threw him out of the city
and began to stone him—.As they were stoning Stephen, he called
out, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.' Then he fell to his knees
and cried out in a loud voice, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against
them'; and when he said this, he fell asleep" (Acts 7:58-60).
Tradition tells us that James was thrown over a
cliff and then clubbed to death. Others were hacked to death with
hatchets and many fought with wild animals in an arena for the
amusement of the crowds.
Tradition has it that Peter chose to be crucified
upside down. This was probably a quicker way of dying than right
way up, which often took 36 hours, but was not the way most of
us would choose to go.
Paul was beheadednot bad when you say it quickly.
But when you picture this old man being taken out through the
streets of Rome along the Appian Way, then tied to a tree where
the executioner hacked away, it tends to make one shiver a little.
Igantius of Antioch, an elderly man, was "ground
like wheat" by the teeth of animals. Perpetua and Felicity, two
young women, had to wait until after Felicity's baby was born
before they could face the lions. During this time Perpetua wrote
down her thoughts, giving us a firsthand account of martyrdom.
Butler's Lives of the Saints runs red with
stories of early martyrs and the details of their deaths. Tertullian
rightly said that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the
Veneration of Saints
The various church communities cherished these martyrs
and from early times commemorated the anniversaries of their deaths
(their birth into eternal life) by keeping all-night vigil at
their graves and celebrating a Eucharist in the early morning.
By the time Christianity became an accepted religion
in the Roman Empire, the cult of martyrs was well established
and they were being invoked as intercessors. Particular saints
could plead before God on behalf of certain communities or individuals.
Members of the community still living on earth could
intercede on behalf of those in purgatory. Praying for the dead
is based on the scriptural passage in 2 Maccabees 12:43-46: "It
is a holy and wholesome thing to pray for the dead that they may
be loosed from their sins."
All the saintsthose on earth, those in heaven
and those in purgatorywere seen as belonging to the one
body of Christ.
There was much emphasis placed on this idea of a
saintly community in the early church. Saint Gregory of Nyssa
wrote that Christians are united by one same Holy Spirit through
Baptism and must "cleave together," forming one body and one spirit.
Tertullian wrote of offering the Eucharist for the
dead that they might be relieved of their suffering.
Ambrose spoke of the church as "embracing the union
of the saints and angels in heaven."
Augustine, speaking at the celebration of the feast
of Perpetua and Felicity, declared: " Let it not seem a small
thing to us that we are members of the same body as these. We
marvel with them and they have compassion on us. We rejoice with
them, they pray for us. We all serve one Lord, follow one master,
and attend one king. We are joined to one head, journey to one
Jerusalem, follow after one love, and embrace one unity."
John Chrysostom called for a "feast of martyrs of
the whole world." At his behest the feast of All Saints (All Hallows),
those known and unknown, has been observed since the fourth century.
Pope Gregory the First spoke of the necessity of
praying for the dead: "The prayers of the faithful on earth and
of the saints in heaven can aid in obtaining the release of those
The Nicene Creed leaves us in no doubt of the importance
of this early church teaching. As Christians we profess a belief
in the communion of saints.
How Does It Work?
This interconnectedness is a dogma that has been
observed and loved by the church through the centuries. It brings
us all together as one family. It includes not only canonized
saints but also all those who have died. It keeps us connected
to our beloved dead. We pray for them, for whatever obligations
they left unfinished, and we ask them to pray for us.
We pray for each other. We pray for our friends
scattered far and wide and feel a bonding with them. We pray for
those in missionary work, for those who are sick, for those being
persecuted for the faith, for our pope, bishops, priests and sisters.
We pray for our enemies and are thus enabled to forgive and to
change our attitude.
It is in the celebration of the Eucharist that this
communion is most manifest. Here the whole church is united. The
Eucharist binds Christians with the entire Christian community,
living and dead, through those physically present at the celebration
and those absent.
The Third Eucharistic Prayer prays that those who
are nourished by the Lord's body and blood may be "filled with
the Holy Spirit and become one body, one Spirit in Christ."
The other Eucharistic Prayers make it equally clear
that Christians are bonded to one another in this communion of
The Second Vatican Council re-emphasized this sense
of community. In the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,
we read: "All are joined together in Christ. So it is that the
union of the wayfarers with the brothers and sisters who sleep
in the peace of Christ is in no way interrupted but on the contrary,
according to the constant faith of the church, this union is reinforced
by an exchange of spiritual goods. Being more closely united with
Christ, those who dwell in heaven consolidate the holiness of
the whole church, add to the nobility of the worship that the
church offers to God here on earth and in many ways help in a
greater building up of the church. Once received into their heavenly
home and being present to the Lord through him and with him and
in him they do not cease to intercede with the Father for us as
they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the
one mediator between God and humanity, Christ Jesus."
This common fellowship makes up the body of Christ
who is the ultimate holiness: the blessed in heaven, the suffering
in purgatory and the militant on earth. There is an exchange of
graces and blessings among them.
Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Credo of the
People of God, states: "The union of the pilgrims with the
brethren who have gone to sleep in the peace of Christ is not
in the least interrupted....Those in heaven place their merits
at our disposal." This has been a most cherished and consoling
teaching for Catholics.
The communion of saints brings together the present,
past and future and makes sense of life. We have not lost those
who have gone on before us. They are still there, though in a
different form, and we still communicate with them.
We celebrate the feasts of All Saints and All Souls
in November. In these feasts, we celebrate also the entry of our
loved ones into heaven and look forward to the same thing happening
to each of us.
Likewise, we celebrate the Assumption of Mary into
heaven on August 15th. In Greek icons, the death of Mary is frequently
depicted. We see her lying on her bed surrounded by the apostles.
She falls asleep and is suddenly held, like a baby, in the arms
of Jesus. Think of your beloved dead as being held in the arms
of Jesus. They have moved from the faithful on earth to another
dimension where they can intercede for their beloved here on earth.
We are all bound, as the poet says, "by gold chains
about the feet of God" through our prayers for one another. We
are members of a powerful, caring and everlasing assemblagethe
communion of saints.
Next: The Messiah (by Michael Guinan)