FAITH MATTERS: Communion of Saints

When the Apostles creed, a profession of faith is confessed there are many statements which clearly outline and describe the Church.

One that has always stood out to me was the belief in the Communion of Saints. The Catechism of the Catholic Church raises the question, what is the Church if not the assembly of all the saints? The Communion of Saints is the Church.

Throughout the age’s society has always looked for heroes, people who have stood up for what is right and just, through their actions they are remembered and honoured for their contributions.

When the concept of Saints come to mind, we naturally think of them as people who lived a life to make change, like Christ did when he was on earth. Schools and Parishes are named after saints and remember their life and contributions through feast day celebrations. People pray to different saints as they hold patronage, wear, or carry medals devoted to saints for safety and protection. During the sacrament of Confirmation, Catholic’s adopt a Saints name to accompany us on our earthly pilgrimage and into deathly one. Saints can be an identity for religious orders and for many devoted throughout the world play an important role in their lives.

Having recently read the chapter Communion of Saints and Mary by Elizabeth A. Johnson, I was left with a deeper knowledge and understanding of where the concept of saints originate from, why various Christian denominations view Mary and the Saints in different ways and how the Communion of Saints are the Church. I would like to share some reflections.

The idea of being holy stems from Jewish roots when the Israelites where led out of Egypt, they were called the holy people. This was not just for one but the whole community.

Early Christians drew upon this biblical tradition to articulate their own sense of identity. They shared the rituals of baptism and Eucharist and lived out the virtues displayed by Christ. As a result, they referred to each other in the church as “saints” or “holy ones” (hagioi in Greek).

In the Christian Scriptures the term saint is referred to over sixty times, it is used not as a reference to just an individual, but one amongst many and within the body of Christ.

During the first century the term saint expanded beyond the living to include those who had died and are now with Christ in glory. Between these saints and the saints on earth exists a strong communion, a mutual sense of appreciation and support.

As Christianity spread, Roman persecution created conditions for some disciples to give the ultimate witness to Christ, their very lives. Condemned, tortured, bloodied, and executed, martyrs were perceived by others in the church as entering in a graphic way into the dying of Jesus, and so into his rising. Christians loved these martyrs and found ways to express their esteem. Their graves became places of pilgrimage and prayer. On the yearly anniversary of their death, nightlong vigil was kept at their graves, culminating at dawn in a Eucharist and common meal. Their memory continued to be cherished even through subsequent generations.

Once the age of Roman persecution ceased, other types of holy women and men joined the ranks of martyrs who were venerated in the church. The Christian cloud of witnesses grew to include confessors who had been tortured for the faith but not killed; ascetics, especially those who lived a life of celibacy; wise teachers and prudent church leaders; and those who cared for the poor.

By the end of the early Christian centuries in both East and West, it was clear that while the communion of saints included all the redeemed in Christ, particular saints, besides being comrades in the following of Jesus, were also powerful patrons and intercessors. In the context of this growing popularity of the saints, increasingly expressed in the use of icons, and in the context of strong criticism of these practices, the last Ecumenical council to occur before the split between East and West made clear the distinction between honouring God and honouring the saints. In 787, the Second Council of Nicaea noted that God alone is to be worshipped and adored while the saints should be given simple respect and veneration.

In medieval times, the saints and Mary blossomed with a profusion that is impossible to codify. On the one hand, the church honoured the memory of those whose lives had given splendid and striking witness to Christ, praising God in their company and holding up their example. On the other hand, popular piety petitioned uncounted thousands of local saints, some of them legendary, but credulity abounded, as evidenced by zeal for collecting relics and superheated hagiography. Despite this, Mary, Mother of Jesus, Mother of God, assumed a magnified role in piety as merciful mother, and powerful queen of heaven and earth. Conviction grew that she ruled the kingdom of mercy in face of the severe justice of Christ.

For the first thousand years of the church’s history local bishops decided who they thought should become honoured through sainthood. In the tenth century, bishops in council at the Lateran involved the Pope officially in this decision for the first time. Papal participation grew to the point where, by the thirteenth century, naming new saints (canonizing them, or inscribing them on the list or canon of officially recognized holy people) was restricted to the papacy alone.

The theological leaders of the Reformation did not turn against the saints or Mary in themselves, but believed there are proper veneration of the saints expressed in three ways: thanking God for them, letting faith be strengthened by them, and imitating their example where appropriate. But what the Re-formers didn’t agree with was calling upon the saints for their prayers and favours. Not only is there no scriptural warrant for this practice, but it dangerously detracts from Christ as the sole mediator between the human race and God. In response, the Council of Trent, while giving regulatory authority over the saints to bishops in order to correct abuses, declared that it is “good and useful” to thank God for the saints and to ask them for their prayers, thus maintaining the legitimacy of invocation.

By the nineteenth century, a resurgence of interest in Mary led to a new exercise of papal teaching authority. In 1854, Pius IX defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which declared that from the first instant of her conception, by the grace of God and the merits of Jesus Christ, Mary was preserved free from original sin. Almost a century later, in 1950, Pius XII defined the dogma of the Assumption, which declared that after her life on earth, Mary was assumed body and soul into the glory of heaven. Piety and theology kept pace with these official developments. New devotions were practiced, apparitions of Mary multiplied, and new places of pilgrimage such as Lourdes and Fatima attracted millions.

Vatican II produced the first extended teaching on the saints and Mary ever given by a church council. Early in the council, the teaching on Mary was presented in a stand-alone document. But soon enfolded into teaching about the church, rather than issued as a separate document as Mary is connected with the saints in heaven and on earth.

The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium LG) written by Pope Paul VI in 1964 provides a crucial interpretation of the saints and Mary.

Mary and other holy people are united in Christ with those still alive and has therefore venerated their memory in special ways (LG 50). In the lives of these people who shared our humanity yet were transformed into successful images of Christ, God vividly manifests to us the divine presence and the divine face. Through them, God speaks a word to us and gives us a sign of the kingdom to which we are powerfully drawn, surrounded as we are by such a great cloud of witnesses (LG 51).

Concerned that veneration of the saints has not always hewn to a rightly ordered pattern, the constitution calls for hard work to correct abuses that have crept in. To restore the veneration of the saints to ample praise of God in Christ, it exhorts, “Let the faithful be taught, therefore, that the authentic cult of the saints consists not so much in the multiplying of external acts, but rather in the intensity of our active love” (LG 51).“Just as Christian communion among wayfarers brings us closer to Christ, so our companionship with the saints joins us to Christ, from whom as from their fountain and head issue every grace and the life of God’s people itself” (LG 50).

In Lumen gentium, we see Mary in the midst of the community of saints in heaven, the saints as friends of God sharing community of life with the pilgrim people of God on earth, and the whole church itself reflecting the light of Christ as the moon does that of the sun.

In the Catechism we read, Communion with the saints. "It is not merely by the title of example that we cherish the memory of those in heaven; we seek, rather, that by this devotion to the exercise of fraternal charity the union of the whole Church in the Spirit may be strengthened. Exactly as Christian communion among our fellow pilgrims brings us closer to Christ, so our communion with the saints joins us to Christ, from whom as from its fountain and head issues all grace, and the life of the People of God itself.” (#957)

In this relationship, they contribute to the upbuilding of the church on earth through their “bright patterns of holiness” (LG 41) and their prayer offered in and with Christ. The right response of living disciples is to love these friends of Christ, to thank God for them, to imitate them in their following of Christ, to invoke their intercession (which means to ask them to pray for us), and to praise God in their company. Each of these actions terminates through Christ in God, who is wonderful in the saints.

The communion of saints involves the constant communication for spiritual goods from those who have already attained perfection to those who are still on pilgrimage.

Join us on a four week journey this November (Thursday 5,12,19 & 26)

6.30pm-8pm as we address the key questions:

What are the origins and meaning of the Communion of Saints?

What is the Church, if not the Assembly of all the Saints?

Why is Mary so deeply connected to the Communion of Saints?

Who are the Saints that expressed an active witness to the Catholic faith?

Participants will engage in a range of activities which will allow them to discover the beauty of the Communion of Saints through Church teachings, art, music and story.

Participants will be required to engage in some pre-reading before each session.

The sessions will be active and require contributions from participants.

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