The Catholic Church’s teaching on the communion of saints is a commonly misunderstood dogma. Both Catholics and non-Catholics often have erroneous ideas about what this communion is. Some believe that Catholics worship saints while others believe that the saints include only those in heaven, thereby excluding the saints on earth and in purgatory (for a better understanding of purgatory, click here). Both conceptions are incorrect and, since this is the Solemnity of All Saints, I think a quick defense of this dogma is in order.
Prayer Vs. Worship
As previously mentioned, some believe that Catholics worship the saints (click here to read Is Praying to the Saints Idolatry?). This charge, however, is completely erroneous and goes against the constant teaching of the Catholic Church, specifically that one is to worship God alone (see Catechism paragraphs 2096 and 2097). Rather, Catholics pray to the saints and honor them (see Hebrews 12:1 and 1 Corinthians 12:26).
When I ask a fellow Christian, whether alive or physically dead, to pray for me, I am praying to a saint. Webster defines the word “pray” as a request or plea. Catholics merely ask the saints to pray to God, through Christ, on our behalf the same way we ask the saints on earth to pray to God on our behalf. Worship has nothing to do with these requests. Further, if a saint on earth dies, does he not continue to be a saint in heaven? Is the saint not closer to the Father by way of the saint’s perfection?
The Catholic Encyclopedia states,
The communion of saints is the spiritual solidarity which binds together the faithful on earth, the souls in purgatory, and the saints in heaven in the organic unity of the same mystical body under Christ, its head, and in a constant interchange of supernatural offices. The participants in that solidarity are called saints by reason of their destination and of their partaking of the fruits of the Redemption (1 Corinthians 1:2). The damned are thus excluded from the communion of saints. The living, even if they do not belong to the body of the true Church (the Catholic Church), share in it according to the measure of their union with Christ and with the soul of the Church. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches (III:8:4) that the angels, though not redeemed, enter the communion of saints (Hebrews 12:22-23) because they come under Christ’s power and receive of His gratia capitis (capital grace).
Scripture and the Communion of Saints
Please read the Bible verses below for a scriptural defense of the communion of saints.
Acts 9:1-6 – “But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord…. Now as he journeyed, he approached Damascus…. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting….’”
At this point Jesus was already crucified and ascended into heaven. Yet, Jesus asks Paul, “Why are you persecuting me?” He did not say, “Why are you persecuting my people or my church?” which is precisely what Paul was doing. Thus, if persecuting God’s people persecutes Jesus, would not honoring his people, honor Jesus? Therefore, we must honor the saints.
Hebrews 12:1-2, 22-23 – “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to the judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of the just men made perfect.”
First, the author is speaking to the Hebrews, people on earth. Second, we are surrounded by a great “cloud” of witnesses (read the previous chapter). What are these saints witnessing? The context is clear. They are witnessing our behavior. Third, who are these just men made perfect? They are the saints, and they reside in the same place as the angels in festal gathering. Fourth, we have come to them in Christ. This passage is a proof text for the communion of saints.
Matthew 22:32 & Mark 12:27– “He (Jesus) is not God of the dead but of the living.” All saints on earth, in purgatory, and in heaven are alive in Christ.
Colossians 1:15-20 – “He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (emphasis added).
Since we are all in Christ, whether in heaven or on earth, and he holds all things together, physical death does not spiritually separate those on earth from those in heaven or in purgatory.
1 Timothy 2:1-5 – Paul urges prayers, supplications, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone. Then he says there is one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ himself. Thus, anyone on earth or in heaven can intercede for another to the Father, but only through Christ, the one mediator.
Genesis 20:7 – God tells Abimelech that Abraham will pray for him and he shall live. 20:17 – Abraham prayed to God and God healed Abimelech. Not only did Abraham pray for Abimelech, God knew he would pray for him, and He did not heal Abimelech until Abraham prayed. Notice that God informs Abimelech that Abraham will pray for him. Through God, Abimelech becomes aware that Abraham will pray for him. Even though God was aware of Abimelech’s needs, he waits for Abraham’s prayer. This demonstrates that one saint can be aware, through God, of another saint’s prayers and God will at least sometimes wait for prayers before answering them. Additionally, the OT is replete with prayers for Israel.
Revelation 5:8 – “When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” Here is an example of saints in heaven praying for other saints.
Revelation 6:9-10 – “When he opened the fifth seal, he saw the souls of those slaughtered for the word of God and for their testimony. They cried out, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood?” Another example of physically dead saints praying to God.
Acts 19:11-12 – “And God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that the handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.” Saints do not have to be physically present in order to perform miracles.
2 Kings 13:21 – “And as a man was being buried, behold, a marauding band was seen and the man was cast into the grave of Elisha; and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and stood on his feet.” Saints do not have to be alive on earth in order to perform miracles.
Jeremiah 31:15-16 – Years after Rachel’s death, Rachel is weeping for her children. The Lord said, “Keep your voice from weeping, for there is reward for your work; they shall come back from the land of the enemy.” Example of a “dead” saint praying for her children.
Matthew 27:50-53 – Jesus breathed his last, the temple was torn, the tombs were opened and the bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Example of dead saints interacting with the living (cf. Matthew 17:3, the Transfiguration).
Tobit 12:15 – “I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels who present the prayers of the saints and enter into the presence of the glory of the Holy One.” If angels can hear and present prayers, why can’t the risen saints? Also, angels must hear our prayers if they present them to the Lord.
Matthew 18:10 – “Their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father.” We have guardian angels who keep watch and report to the Father. By the way, this does not mean that God needs angels to report to him or to keep watch over us. Rather, God allows the angels to participate in his providential protection over all creation. Similarly, God gave Adam and Eve (and us by relation) a share in his dominion over creation. God does not need anyone’s help, but as a pure act of generosity flowing from infinite love, He gives us a share in his dominion.
Romans 8:35 – “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If death cannot separate us from the love of God, aren’t we all united to God through Christ? Thus, the saints in heaven can hear our prayers.
Ephesians 6:18 – Paul commands, “Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints.”
Ephesians 2:19-21 – “So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord.” All saints are members of the same household, the Church. Hebrews 6:11-12 – “And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness in realizing the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” We are called to imitate the saints who have gone before us.
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