What is it?
If you’ve been a member of the Catholic Church for some time, you have likely heard this term and may know that it is a doctrine of the Church. Have you ever spent any time reflecting on what it means, or considering the depths of what it may mean for your life and your after-life for that matter? As I prepared to write this article, I certainly gained more insight into the importance of understanding the communion of saints and living my life differently because of it. It is on the word “communion” that we focus.
Article 9, paragraph 5 (960-961) of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
The Church is a “communion of saints”: this expression refers first to the “holy things” (sancta) [sacraments/mysteries], above all the Eucharist, by which “the unity of believers, who form one body in Christ, is both represented and brought about” (LG 3).
The term “communion of saints” refers also to the communion of “holy persons” (sancti) in Christ who “died for all,” so that what each one does or suffers in and for Christ bears fruit for all.
So, there are two aspects of the communion of saints; first a participation in one common reality; that is holy things; the Sacraments/Mysteries, especially Baptism and the Eucharist which bring us into union with each other. Secondly, it refers we who, partaking in the holy things, have thus become holy as members of the one Body of Christ. So, the communion of saints is the Church, and the Church is the Body of Christ.
It is our purpose in life to grow in communion; to strive ever closer to God. In the Eastern Church, this is known as theosis or “divinization.” But we don’t do it alone. In the Catechism of the Ukrainian Catholic Church: Christ Our Pascha we read: “Humankind grows in communion with God within the community of the faithful, the Church. The Church is Christ’s Body…” (Par. 334)
We Reflect the Love of the Trinity
When we speak of the Trinity, we must speak of perichoresis – literally the “choreographed dancing” or simultaneous interpenetration/indwelling of all three divine persons with and within each other. This dance of love pours itself out and God, as Triune Love, reaches out to us and invites us into this ever-dynamic movement of love.
As humans, we were created through the perfect love of the Trinity. Even more, we were made in the image and likeness of that love. As true Christians, we are called to spend our lives working with the grace of God to mirror that perfect love of the Trinity. Therefore, it makes sense that we move together as one. If I am concerned solely with my own salvation, then I am somehow missing the boat. Where is the love there? I am not in a race AGAINST others, I am on a journey WITH them. It is not as if there are limited rooms in heaven. As one member within the Body of Christ, I must always be concerned with the journey of others.
So, understanding the word “communion” is very important to this discussion. It is not just a friendship that we share with each other and a hope that each of us will “make it to heaven.” It is a union at our very core as creatures made in the image of God, that spurs us on to do what we can for the salvation of the other. It is the love of God within us that makes this possible.
Heaven and Earth
This union does not stop at the border of heaven and earth. There are some that see a great uncrossable chasm between those still living and those that have passed into the afterlife. But the renowned Eastern scholar, Father George Maloney, in his book The Communion of Saints, asks the questions: “Could we ever imagine that the state of heaven would isolate us from the poor and suffering of this world? Would we enjoy eternal happiness and love of God without seeking to love others, especially the members of God’s created family, his children, who are hurting?” When one reflects on this question, it truly doesn’t make sense that after passing through death, loving Christians, especially the saints who are filled to a greater degree with the Spirit of Love, would not be concerned about the members still in this earthly realm.
As Christians who look to Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice of death upon the cross and His glorified resurrection, we know that the barrier between life and death has been annihilated. We know that God is the God of all and of every place. In our prayers in the Panakhyda service (service for the deceased) we pray: “You are the God who went down into Hades …” As Christians we cannot believe that the Body of Christ (the Church) can be divided, by death. The Church has always taught that there is communication between the living and the dead. The Catechism of the Ukrainian Catholic Church Christ Our Pascha it states:
Christ taught his disciples to turn to God together as a community of God’s children with the words: “Our Father…” (see Mt 6:9ff). The prayers of Divine Services rise from the entire community of the faithful. The prayer of the Church as the Body of Christ unites all the faithful; the Church on earth is united with the heavenly Church through prayers to the saints and veneration of their icons. (Par. 336)
Therefore, we must believe that we remain united – in communion, with those that have died.
 George A. Maloney S.J., Communion of Saints, (New York: Living Flame Press, 1998) 43.
It’s a Two Way Street
Our Church asks us not only to pray TO the saints for intercession on our behalf but encourages us to pray FOR all those who have died. In his Homily on 1 Corinthians, Saint John Chrysostom urged: “Let us then give them aid and perform commemorations for them. For if the children of Job were purged by the sacrifice of their father, why do you doubt that when we too offer for the departed, some consolation arises to them? Since God is [inclined] to grant the petitions of those who ask for others.”
Although the concept of purgatory originates in the Roman Catholic Church, the Ukrainian Catholic Church also recognizes that not all who have died have reached spiritual maturity, that is, the fullness of life in Christ. Our Catechism, Christ Our Pascha, declares that: “such a person is still in need of spiritual healing and cleansing of all stain, in order to dwell ‘in a place of light … (Par. 250). This time for healing granted to us by our all merciful and loving God is not a time of punishment but is meant for our purification, so that we may continue the process of divinization. The great Eastern father of the Church, Gregory the Theologian, offers a positive outlook on this process of purification and growth:
Every fair and God-beloved soul, once it has been set free from the bonds of the body, departs hence, and immediately enjoys a sense and perception of the blessings which await it, inasmuch as that which darkened it has been purged away, or laid aside—I know not how else to term it. It then feels a wondrous pleasure and exultation, and goes rejoicing to meet its Lord.
(Oration 7, 21).
This is an encouragement to all of us to remember our loved ones, and those we do not even know and to pray for them. And realizing that the prayer of the saints – those who have achieved a certain closeness with God, is more powerful and efficacious, it behooves us to continually grow in our own faith; to read Scripture, to pray incessantly and to live a life of virtue in order that our prayers offered for others may be all the more treasured by God.
Why pray to the saints? Why not go directly to Jesus?
Of course, we can and must go directly to Jesus in prayer. He is the one true mediator for us. We learn this in 1 Tim. 2:5: For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human. It is imperative to recognize and emphasize the uniqueness of Christ’s mediatorship. He is the only true mediator because He is the only one that is both God and human. Everything happens through Him.
But Jesus himself asked us to pray for others, even telling us to pray for our enemies: But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt. 5:44). In the writings of St. Paul, we often find him asking for prayers for himself, for example: Eph. 6:18–20, Col. 4:3, 1 Thess. 5:25, 2 Thess. 3:1.
Romans 15:30–32 presents a wonderful example of an acceptable request for intercession through prayer:
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in earnest prayer to God on my behalf, that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my ministry to Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.
St. Paul asks for prayers, by Jesus Christ and the love of the Holy Spirit. All of the prayers that we direct to the saints are an appeal for them to pray to God for us and to work with (synergy) the Trinity for our salvation. The saints in heaven certainly recognize that all they do is through the grace of God.
St. Paul’s request is based in his desire to glorify God. When we ask the saints and our departed loved ones for prayers, all we ask for should be meant for the glory of God. Indeed, everything that we say and do should be for the glory of God.
As Christians, we ask others to pray for us all the time. When we are suffering either physically, mentally, or spiritually we often turn to each other to ask for prayers. No one would argue that it is wrong for us to do so. There is a power in those prayers that we offer for the good of others. This kind of prayer originates in love. When I pray for myself, God listens, but how much more must He treasure when, out of love, I pray for others and they for me?! In the act of interceding, we are “being love.” We are imaging God Himself. These prayers not only result in the good of those we pray for, but they are opportunities for us who pray to grow ever closer towards God. By my self-sacrifice in praying for others, I am stretching outside of myself and am filled even more by the Holy Spirit through this act of love. Both the one that prays and the one being prayed for are transformed!
So, if we ask the saints and our loved ones that have gone before us to pray for us, we are also offering them the opportunity to stretch and become more and more filled with the Spirit. Their prayers for us grow and grow as they are more and more able to freely give of themselves in loving service.
Doesn’t Scripture say it’s wrong to “talk” to spirits?
We are specifically told in Deuteronomy:
10 No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, 11 or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. (Deut. 18:10,11)
There is a difference, however, between conjuring up spirits to gain some kind of information and praying to the saints as the Church encourages us to do. When we pray to the saints, and our departed loved ones, we are asking them as members of the Body of Christ, to pray for us. We in turn, pray for the good of others living or dead. Our united goal is the salvation of all humanity, not “telling the future” or gaining some secret information.
There is Comfort in it.
I personally had an experience once when I had arranged a group to pray across from the abortion clinic. It was a very cold day, and I arrived at the appointed time. However, no one else came. Although this was a bit of a disappointment, I pulled out my rosary and began to walk and to pray. It suddenly came to my mind, as a gift of the Holy Spirit, that I was indeed not praying alone. In my minds eye, I could see all the angels and saints that were surrounding me and praying with me. This buoyed and strengthened me and my experience of prayer that day will always remain with me as a beautiful memory and a comfort. Each time I pray, I now remember that I never pray alone.
As we reflect on the communion of saints, let us remember that we can always count on the intercession of others, whether living or dead, to the Lord our God. Let us feel them cheering us on and strengthening us. Let us also, not forget our responsibility to pray for others who have passed on before us.
We are the Church. We are united in Christ. We are His Body.
Bernadette Mandrusiak, MDiv
Director of Catechesis, Edmonton Eparchy
George Maloney S.J. – Communion of Saints
Catechism of the Catholic Church
Catechism of the Ukrainian Catholic Church: Christ Our Pascha
This article was originally printed in Nasha Doroha, Summer 2021 issue.