Understanding the communion of saints

| Father Michael Van Sloun | October 27, 2011 | 2 Comments

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, the communion of saints of the living, those who are still on their pilgrim journey on earth; and the communion of saints of the dead or the faithful departed, some of whom are being purified, those in purgatory, and the ones 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.

Father Van Sloun is pastor of St. Bartholomew in Wayzata. Read more of his writing at CatholicHotdish.com.





Tags: , , ,

Category: All Saints, Featured

  • Robert Sturey

    Is purgatory biblical ? Why would anyone be in purgatory if Christ’s sacrifice cleanses us from all sin? How do you know who to pray for and for how long ? Jesus said to the thief on the cross , ” Today , you shall be with me in Paradise…” There is no suffering or sin in Paradise.

    • Engage Gray Matter

      While purgatory is not specifically called out in the Bible, in Matthew 5:26 we can clearly see its implication: Christ is condemning sin and speaks of liberation only after expiation. “Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.” Now we know that no last penny needs to be paid in Heaven and from Hell there is no liberation at all; hence the reference must apply to a third place.

      As for who to pray to, that’s an easy one. We pray to God and God alone. However, there is no restriction on calling on or venerating the saints or Mary, Blessed Virgin to pray “for us” and to intercede on our behalf with God the Father. Who better to speak on our behalf and ask for mercy to be shown upon us than the very mother of Jesus Christ?

      I think often people are confused about what purgatory is. It isn’t a place per se but rather a state. While God’s love is infinite and His forgiveness readily given for those who are truly repentant for their sins, we don’t get “off the hook” that easy. Just as a parent loves a child, when they do wrong there are consequences (time out, a valued toy taken, or even corporal punishment should it be warranted). It doesn’t mean the parent no longer loves the child, so to it is with our sin. While God loves us (warts and all), we still have to atone for our sins. Just as you pointed out, “there is no suffering in paradise”, so too there is also no evil or sin in heaven and so we must be purified before we can enter. This is a state of purgatory. How long one spends in purgatory is anyone’s guess. I like to think of it as a state of suspended animation where our souls will be cleansed as by fire so that we are worthy of the promise of God’s kingdom.