Each issue carries an
imprimatur from the
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Reprinting prohibited

Communion of Saints:
Top Team of All Time

by James Philipps

For football fans, life doesn't get much better than this. Just before the Sunday game at Soldier Field, the Chicago Bears held a memorial service. Fans were invited to honor Walter Payton, the retired Chicago star running back who had died the previous week.

Now as the November game entered its final seconds, the Bears were clinging to a three-point lead against their arch rival Green Bay Packers. The Packers prepared to kick a game-tying field goal.

As the last few seconds ticked off the clock, the kick was blocked by a leaping Chicago Bear player. Interviewed afterward about his spectacular play, the player admitted that he'd never jumped that high before. He credited Payton for the extra boost.

Did Walter Payton contribute to the Bears' success that day in 1999? Probably, he served only as a great inspiration! Still, this story illustrates well what we mean when we Catholics speak of the Communion of Saints.

The holy women and men who have gone before us continue to be with us. Their prayers and presence can give us that extra boost we need to make the leap of faith into the arms of God.

You've Got Connections

The new Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses the idea simply: "The Communion of Saints is the Church" (#946). You've often seen or heard about ads that offer "lifetime membership" to a particular organization or club for a fee. The Church offers an even better deal, called a covenant.

If our destiny and purpose in life are to become more and more deeply united with God and one another, then it doesn't make sense that this process would stop at the time of our deaths. Jesus' Resurrection shows us that this life is only the entryway into an even fuller kind of living. Because it's our relationships with one another that give our lives meaning, a fuller experience of life must bring us into even closer relationships with others.

This is the concept of the "body of Christ," first described by St. Paul in the New Testament (Romans 12:4-8). The Church has often used the word mystical before the word body, meaning spiritual or invisible. (It doesn't mean magical!) St. Paul wanted us to understand that we are intimately related to one another and to Jesus. He explained that the Church functions as a human body does.

Every Christian is a member of this body. We all depend on one another like parts of the body do. (For instance, try leaving your heart at home for a few days.)

All the parts of your body (its members) unite toward the purpose of keeping the body alive and healthy. All the parts of our body are connected: All the parts of the body of Christ are connected as well. This Youth Update hopes that you'll realize—even experience—this connection.

Three P's of Church

Our connectedness begins with Baptism and continues into eternity. The community of the faithful we call the Church always lives in three distinct dimensions, described by Vatican Council II in Lumen Gentium (#49-51). This Latin title means Light to the Nations and refers to an important document about the Church.

1. The Church in Perfection.
There are those who have completed their earthly lives and now are fully in the presence of God. We are speaking of the saints who are enjoying what St. Paul describes as "gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord" (2 Corinthians 3:18). We sometimes call it the "beatific (BEE-uh-TIF-ik) vision"—a direct, one-on-one experience of God rather than our present human experience of faith.

2. The Church in Purgation.
(Purgation is the act of cleansing something of all its impurities. It is the source of the word purgatory.) Some people die having done the best that they could to be disciples of Jesus. They are in line for the Kingdom of God.

For one reason or another, however, they never attained the wholeness and fullness of life that God intends for them and that they need to experience the beatific vision. They depend on our prayers—the expressions of our love for them—in order to complete their spiritual journey into heaven.

3. The Church on Pilgrimage.
Those of us making up the Church in the here and now are still on our life journey as disciples of Jesus. As we walk along the paths in life to which God calls us, we journey in union not only with one another but also with our brothers and sisters no longer living within the limiting boundaries of time and space.

As we pray for those souls in purgatory—the more commonly used name for that second dimension—we pray with those saints whose holiness provides us with a spiritual strength that we can draw on as we make our way individually and as a community.

The vision of Church that the Communion of Saints opens up before us broadens our understanding. The Church we see is only a small part of the whole Church—all the P's added together. Those saints who have gone before us make up our cheering section.

Saints & Mini-saints

All sorts of saints sit in this cheering section. Throughout our history, the Catholic Church has formally canonized or declared as saints many men and women whose way of living clearly showed their commitment to gospel values and to Jesus. Many such saints, such as St. Francis of Assisi or St. Catherine of Siena, are especially remembered on their designated feast days in the Church calendar.

A good place to start in your exploration of this rich heritage is with your own patron saint. Also, consider your own interests and cultural background. There's a saint for just about all occasions. (If all else fails, don't forget about the patron saint of lost causes—St. Jude!)

Canonized saints are only a small minority of those celebrating the direct vision of God. All Saints Day on November 1 is set aside to remember that vast array of uncanonized saints—those individuals whose holiness was known only by a few.

As you reflect on the good people in your life who have really loved you, you might very well discover a saint or two among their ranks—perhaps a beloved grandparent who has entered into eternal glory. These uncanonized saints gave you strength and comfort through their prayers and their loving support all the time that they were physically with you. Why would they stop now?

This is the unbelievably good news about saints. Through his Resurrection, Jesus revealed to us that death is only a checkpoint to be passed. Those who were close to us in life continue to share a spiritual bond with us after death. While the absence we experience is real, this spiritual connection is just as real.

When we pray for those who have died and pray with the saints, we are strengthening and deepening these spiritual relationships. This is just the way our time and efforts spent with those we care about here and now strengthen our human relationships.

Going Too Far

Some people get so carried away with this good news about saints that they make mistakes. A common one is to confuse honoring a saint (veneration) with worship.

For Christmas, my little girl received a Lite-Brite, a great toy that contains a lot of colorful, translucent pegs that she places into holes in a black screen. Behind the screen is a small light bulb. When the machine is turned on and the pegs are inserted, they light up as if they were so many tiny colorful light bulbs.

The source of the light is really the bulb behind the screen. The pegs merely reflect the light.

Lite-Brite can help us understand the relationship between the saints and God. All the good that any saint accomplished and the holiness which characterized that person's life came from his or her total cooperation with God, the light bulb or source of all that is good.

Thinking about the life of a saint is just another way to focus on the limitless love and goodness of God. Read the writings of any of the canonized saints. Try St. Th—r—se of Lisieux, for example. The more holy she becomes the more she is aware of her dependence on God.

Only God deserves worship. The saints, by their prayers and life example, help us develop and deepen our relationship with God.

If we begin to look at the saints as mini-gods or goddesses or to see them as good-luck charms, then we stop being in communion with them and begin to drift into a form of idolatry (eye-DOLL-uh-tree). Idolatry is making anything or anyone more important than God in our lives.

Another possible stray path linked to the Communion of Saints is spiritism or spiritualism. Spiritism refers to any attempt to contact the spirits of the dead directly through such means as s—ances, Ouija boards or the use of mediums (individuals who claim to have the power to speak directly with the dead). Psychics sometimes fall into this category as well. These practices are very ancient, and interest in them increases and decreases from age to age. But the Church has always warned against such practices.

Why, you might well ask. If the communion between those who make up the Church on Pilgrimage (us on earth) and those who celebrate the Church in Perfection (not on earth) is real, then why shouldn't we be talking to each other?

One reason should be obvious, and is more a question of caution and good judgment than religion. The history of spiritism in this country and elsewhere demonstrates that most mediums and psychics are frauds who swindle people out of their money. (A good source for learning how to spot such frauds is the book Why People Believe Weird Things, by Michael Shermer.)

The Church has a spiritual concern as well. It's one thing to unite our prayers with those of the saints in order to worship God or to offer our prayers for the sake of those souls who are in need of them. But it's something very different to try to manipulate this connection for our own purposes, even if those purposes seem harmless. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it this way: "[Practices of spiritism] conceal a desire for power over...other human beings....They contradict the honor, respect and loving fear that we owe to God alone"(#2116).

A couple of stories from the Bible help us understand what the catechism means. In the story of the Tower of Babel (BAY-bul) from Genesis 11, we are asked to imagine that all the people of the world have come together to build the highest tower ever constructed. Why? They want to explore the spiritual heights where God lives—without God's help. This dogged attempt by human beings to find some kind of a shortcut or end run around God is similar to the intentions of some who engage in various practices of spiritism.

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus found in Luke's Gospel (16:19-31), Jesus tells the story of a man who turns his back on the poor and thus on God. After he dies and sees what a big mistake he made, he asks Abraham, the father of all the Jewish people, if he might return to the world as a spirit to warn his brothers not to make the same mistake.

Abraham's answer expresses the heart of the Catholic Church's objection to spiritism: "If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead." Genuine insight into God and spiritual matters, in other words, comes through the Bible and the Church. Any attempts to prove the existence of an afterlife through spiritism—or other occult means—will ultimately fail.

Love Without Limits

The more we think about the Communion of Saints the more we will become aware of how much love surrounds us from those we can see and those we can't. Our prayer becomes even more meaningful and wonderful when we realize that through prayer we are participating in a relationship with God and the other members of our Christian family. This link goes beyond our own lifetimes and connects us with good and holy men and women of all ages.

In the end, the teaching (doctrine) of the Communion of Saints expresses the fundamental Christian belief that we are loved by the God who created us beyond our ability to imagine. This love reaches beyond the limits of our earthly lives. Truly, this is the team for which we're all drafted.

James Philipps is a teacher of religious education on the high school, college and graduate levels. He has written several other Youth Updates and for other publications as well.

Molly Burns (16), Mike Hopkins (15), Gail Kramer (15), Randi Kramer (17) and Michael W. McSorley (15), from Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Trenton, Ohio, met at church to review this issue and ask questions. They brainstormed new titles and asked important questions. Their youth minister is Jean Schaefer, who also joined in the discussion.



Aren't some people—the unbaptized—outside the Church? How are they connected to the Communion of Saints?


Vatican Council II's document on the Church (Lumen Gentium, Chapter 2) makes it clear that someone who is not a baptized Christian could still be a member of the body of Christ. This can happen in a number of ways. For instance, the person never had the opportunity to be baptized. Jesus was sent to save each and every human being. So actual membership in the Communion of Saints is bound to be much larger than we can count—or imagine.


You seem to discourage friendship with the saints when you caution us against worshiping them. Can you explain in another way the difference between veneration and worship?


With friendship or veneration of the saints, you must remember that saints derive all their power from their own love of God. So—God's the one above all. Saints are to be seen as the friends of God; that's why they're our friends. Worship would be thinking saints' powers were greater than God's and that they somehow deserved praise apart from—even more than—God.


What about hell? How does that fit in here?


According to Church teaching, hell refers to a state of being eternally separated from God. The web of relationships included in the Communion of Saints connects to and is grounded in a relationship with God. Hell, therefore, must be a kind of loneliness and isolation beyond imagining. (I don't even want to try to imagine it!)


I want to order print copies of this Youth Update.

I want to order a 12-month bulk subscription to hand out in my parish or classroom.


Paid Advertisement
Ads contrary to Catholic teachings should be reported to our webmaster. Include ad link.

An AmericanCatholic.org Web Site from the Franciscans and
Franciscan Media     ©1996-2014 Copyright