Professor, Notre Dame Department of Theology
This is the tenth in a series of articles first printed in “Today’s Catholic.”
We are grateful for the permission of the editorial staff
to republish them here.
Previous articles in this series:
Reflections on the Creed: Part 1
Reflections on the Creed: Part 2
Reflections on the Creed: Part 3
Reflections on the Creed: Part 4
Reflections on the Creed: Part 5
Reflections on the Creed: Part 6
Reflections on the Creed: Part 7
Reflections on the Creed: Part 8
Reflections on the Creed: Part 9
“I believe in the communion of saints…”
“I believe in the communion of saints.” According to Jesuit theologian George Maloney, this statement of faith is “the one least understood among Christians and therefore the one that has least importance for practical Christian living.”
In issuing a “universal call of holiness” (Lumen Gentium, Chapter 5), the Second Vatican Council clearly intended to foreground this dogma, to render it understood and practical in the modern world, and to place it at the heart of the Church’s self-understanding. The communion of saints constitutes the Church in its very sociology. To be a member of the Church is simply to be called to sanctity — called by Christ and called by the saints.
What does “the communion of saints” mean and how is it important for our lives? The creed does not declare our belief simply in the existence of saints, but in the communion of saints, in their vital connection with each other.
St. Paul’s great realization was that the saints are the members of Christ’s Mystical Body, united in the “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father” (Eph 4:5). By this definition, the “communion of saints” is the very life of Christ, which binds Christians together. Sharing the Scriptures, the teachings, charitable works, the joys and sorrows of Christian living, and the sacraments — above all, the Eucharist, which is Christ Himself, the food of martyrs — they live out and actually increase the communion of saints.
This mysterious bond in Christ is so deep, so real, that each one’s prayers, good works, suffering, and striving for sanctity affect the others. This holds true not only of Christians in direct contact with other — who see each other, work together, belong to the same family or parish. No, the communion of saints affects a spiritual connection between persons that overcomes the limits of time and space.
In Christ, what I do and offer in charity makes a difference in the lives of others — no matter in what hidden corner I stand. The Servant of God Joseph Kentenich (1885-1968) taught his followers this motto: “I sanctify myself for others.” What I eat at my table affects the hungry. What money I spend affects the poor. What and how I pray affect the prayers of others.
Belief in the communion of saints calls us to a deep responsibility for each other here and now. It also gives us hope, knowing that the saints who have preceded us on the earthly journey continue to intercede for us in Christ. As J. P. Kirsch explains, “The departed saints … are concerned about those still struggling.” The saints in heaven care for those on earth.
Because the saints in heaven are united with God, each Christian’s union with God on earth is also a communion with them. To live out of the truth of this communion, to realize its potential, is to crack open what is for many an unbreakable barrier, to achieve a vital communication between heaven and earth, between those living in time and those living in eternity. Our God is “the God of the living, not the dead” (Mt 22:32).
Whereas the Feast of All Saints invites the whole Church to look upward to the saints in glory, the Second Vatican Council gives us the same vision from the opposite direction. It invites us to see the Church on earth as the saints in heaven see it and call it to holiness. What unites the two perspectives is the faith of Christians, ancient and ever new, in the communion of saints.