By Fr. Joseph Francis –
What does the Church document Lumen Gentium say about the Communion of saints?
The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) of Vatican II council in chapter VII entitled: on the Pilgrim Church, speaks at length on this question in its own style and it is worth reading to understand this properly. We shall simplify it here so that you could understand it easily. We have to understand first what we mean by “saints” and then the meaning of the word “communion”.
What does the word “saint” mean in the expression “communion of saints”?
Saint refers to three categories:
i) all those in heaven
ii) all who are in purgatory
iii) all of us who are baptized and who are still living in this world our mortal life.
First of all we say: those in heaven. It does not matter if these while on earth belonged to some religion or other or to no religion at all. If they had lived good lives of charity, love towards God as they perceived him to be and who had loved their neighbours with unselfishness, doing whatever good they could do to others, all such people may have somehow come into contact with Jesus, in some mysterious way known to God alone. The Gospel of Mathew in chapter 25 describing the last judgment scene puts it into the mouth of the judging king “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25.40).
Therefore in an unconscious way they had done the service to the Lord himself. Catechism of the Catholic Church in no. 1257 says: “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.” So, what rights have I to dictate to God and say “Lord please do not give him/her heaven because he/she has not received baptism of water?”
Perhaps we would be pleasantly surprised to find many in heaven whom we thought would not be there. Remember that this does not go counter to “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me” (Jn14. 6) because all these are in a mysterious way united to Jesus and how can I forget even for one moment that their human nature and the human nature of Jesus is same? About the second category we shall speak about purgatory in another chapter but here let it suffice to say that all those in the process of purgatorial maturation are called “holy souls” because they have already crossed from death to life and are indeed saved. They are not condemned or lost souls.
The baptized on earth are also “saints”
The third category often proves a surprise to many. When this question is raised many tell me: ‘how can we ever be considered as saints? We are conscious of our sinfulness. We are on the process of becoming saints but saints we cannot be.’ But my reply is that we are not only called to be saints in future but are in fact saints in a certain fashion: we are indeed “saintified” by baptism and other sacraments. The contact that we enjoy as those in whom the new life has been formed, is indescribable. We are the temples of the Holy Spirit.
St. Paul says in I Cor 3.16-17: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?…For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are.” Again in 6.19 he says emphatically: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?” Two other passages testify that we are brothers and sisters of Jesus, sons and daughters of God the Father to whom we call out Abba Father (Cf. Rm 8.15-17; Gal 4.4-6).
The primitive Christians called one another “saint” the word “Christian” came much later and that too because of the heretics who began to call themselves as exclusive Church of pure ones and all others as sinners, outside the Church.
Here are some of the passages where this primitive Church’s usage could be seen: Acts 9.13 Ananias complaining to God about Saul the persecutor “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to thy saints at Jerusalem.” The converted Paul confessing says in Acts 26.10 “…I not only shut up many of the saints in prison…” Later, collecting funds for the saints (starving Christians) in Jerusalem he says in Rm 12.13 “Contribute to the needs of the saints…”; Rm 15.25 “At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem with aid for the saints” and in II Cor 8.4 we read that the faithful of the Churches of Macedonia were “…begging us earnestly for the favour of taking part in the relief of saints”; 9.1 “Now it is superfluous for me to write to you about the offering for the saints” and in verse 12 “…for the rendering of this service not only supplies the wants of the saints…” and at the end of the letter to the Philippians 4.21 we find : “Greet every saint in Christ Jesus.” You could refer many other texts: e.g., I Cor 16. 1; Eph 2.19 & I Tim 5.10. So, it should be clear that we are indeed “saints.”
What does the word “communion” mean in the expression “Communion of saints”?
Now we go to the other term “communion”. The meaning of this expression is sharing, celebrating a friendship and fellowship with one another; experiencing caring and concern for one another’s welfare. Putting both the expressions together “Communion of saints” we confess that the three categories of saints that we mentioned above form one communion where they experience this sharing, caring and concern. The saints in heaven pray for us and we honour the saints in heaven and ask for their intercession with God; similarly we pray and offer sacrifices (suffrages) for the Holy Souls in Purgatory who cannot pray for themselves and they can pray for us and we do ask them to pray for us; of course we pray for one another on earth (our prayers of the faithful at mass is a witness for this).
Acts of the Apostle has graphic pictures of this care and concern e.g., 2. 44-47; 4.34-37. Formerly they used to speak of the same thing as 3 wings of the one Church:
i) Church Triumphant referring to all those in heaven. They have finished their race and have entered the presence of God to enjoy Beatific vision i.e., the sight of God which makes one supremely happy. They spend eternity praising, thanking God and through their intercession assist us who are still on this side of earth of 4 dimensions (length, breadth, depth and time).
ii) Church Suffering referring to all the holy souls in purgatory (we mention all because some of them while on earth may not have received the baptism of water but good people belonging to any religion or no religion but they have made their grade through love for God as they perceived and active love for others as we mentioned in the previous chapter speaking of those in heaven; only they are in need of purification. We shall speak about purgatory in the next chapter).
iii) Church militant referring to all of us baptized who are struggling and fighting all the evils that beset our human lives on earth. We are still to make our final fundamental choice! This we shall explain in the next chapter.