The Communion of Saints

Biblical and patristic studies on the communion of saints

There are three states of the church until the coming of the Lord. The Church Militant, the Church Suffering and Church Triumphant, all in communion.

We believe that those who belong to the Church Triumphant can intercede for us before God to give us their timely assistance and help us on our way to Him. The angels who are in communion with God and constantly see your face can also intercede for us.

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Talking with my evangelical friends about the saints

By José Miguel Arráiz

You can read it in Spanish, English and Portuguese.

DiálogoWe reproduce excerpts of conversations between Catholics and Evangelicals from the book "Talking with my evangelical friends", very useful in helping our fellow Christians understand the Catholic faith.

Pauline: I don’t understand why the Catholics have to pray to the saints. Isn’t that idolatry?

Joseph: Ok, please let me explain you what we really believe.

Michael: Go ahead, explain.

Joseph: This is what happens. We Catholics believe that “He that believeth in the Son hath life everlasting” just like it says on the Bible. (John 3,36)

Michael: That’s true. We all believe it.

Joseph: Yes, but if we really accept that as a fact, we also have to accept its implications, and one of those is that once we are joined to Christ, this eternal life does not end or is interrupted by death, but it arrives to its plenitude. That’s why we call it eternal life and not interrupted life or something like that, because it is a life that does not stop in the eternity. We believe that those who die in the grace of God, those go to enjoy the presence of God, and in there, they still are part of this community of love called the church, because the church is…

Michael: Christ’s body.

Joseph: Exactly. When you are part of Christ’s body, you are not dismembered once you die. Instead of that, you remain in a more intense communion. In that communion of love, those people do not lose the capacity to pray for others to God. If when they were alive, they could intercede with their prayers for us, now they can do it with much more fervor because they are in the plenitude of God’s love. They don’t stop loving us or worrying about us. This is the key to understanding the dogma of the saint’s communion: how the members of the body of Christ are joined to each other, and together even in the beyond.

This is the reason why Catholics say that the church is divided into church militant (those who peregrinate in this life), church triumphant (those who triumphed in the way of faith), and church penitent (those who are purified in the purgatory) before enjoying the vision of God. Maybe we can talk later about this topic.

Michael: Hey, but I thought that when somebody died, they “fell asleep in the Lord”. As an example in the Bible when Lazarus dies, he sleeps: “These things he said; and after that he said to them: Lazarus our friend sleepeth: but I go that I may awake him out of sleep” (John 11,11). The same happened with Stephen that when he died, he slept: “and falling on his knees, he cried with a loud voice, saying: Lord, lay not his sin to their charge: And when he had said this, he fell asleep in the Lord.” (Acts 7,60)

Pauline: That’s right; those who die sleep in the Lord.

Joseph: Ok, let me explain something to you. When the Bible uses the word “sleep” to refer to the dead, it refers to their bodies, not to their souls. In the same example about Stephen, you can see how before “he sleeps”, he saw that the sky opened to welcome him “but he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looking up steadfastly to heaven, saw the glory of God and Jesus standing on the right hand of God.” (Acts 7,55)

Those who believe that the ones who die are not aware or that they do not exist outside their bodies are part of sects as Jehovah's Witnesses and Adventists do not believe in the eternity of the soul. We Catholics and even the Protestants (for example the first reformers did not think so) do not believe that, because there are many biblical texts where you can see this.

Michael: For example?

Joseph: Saint Paul confesses that he wants to die to be with Christ: “For to me, to live is Christ: and to die is gain. And if to live in the flesh: this is to me the fruit of labour. And what I shall choose I know not. But I am straitened between two: having a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ, a thing by far the better. But to abide still in the flesh is needful for you.” (Phil 1,21-24)

Michael: Of course, but doesn’t that mean that is that he wants to die to sleep in the Lord.

Joseph: It would not make sense that Saint Paul would want to die to fall sleep. On the contrary, he said that even outside the body, he can strive to please the Lord, and someone who is asleep can’t strivebut we are confident and have a good will to be absent rather from the body and to be present with the Lord. And therefore we labour, whether absent or present, to please him.” (2 Cor 5,8-9). You can see that he is sure that when he leaves his body, he will be with Christ and he will enjoy the vision of God: “therefore having always confidence, knowing that while we are in the body we are absent from the Lord.” (2 Cor 5,6)

There are many more examples in the bible where you can see that those who die are not unaware. Remember when Samuel the prophet appeared after his own death to Saul and told him everything that was going to happen (1 Sam 28,6-20). An Adventist would say that it was not him but a demon, but if you see closely in the text, you will see that it doesn’t say that, it says that it was the real Samuel. On the other hand, everything that he said was true and it was fulfilled. That’s not how the devil acts; he is the father of lies.

We also have the example of the good thief, who Christ told that on the same day he would be with him in the paradise: “Jesus said to him: Amen I say to thee: This day thou shalt be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23,43). We know of the words of Christ that the resurrection will be on the last day (John 6,44.54; 11,24), however that same day, that thief will be with him[1], not sleep or unawake.

Last but not least in the transfiguration is clearly the presence of Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus (Mark 9) and they were truly awake. In the Lazarus and the rich parable (Luke 16,19-31), even being a parable, we can see a real teaching: those who were waiting for Christ’s resurrection were not unawake, but some of them were suffering torment and others were happy.

Michael: But then why does the Bible say that when Christ comes, those who are alive will join those who are already sleeping in the Lord; and then we will all be with Christ forever? Remember that it says that: “For the Lord himself shall come down from heaven with commandment and with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God: and the dead who are in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, shall be taken up together with them in the clouds to meet Christ, into the air: and so shall we be always with the Lord.” (1 Thess 4,16-17)

Charles: That’s true. I don’t understand that. If those who are dead are in heaven in the presence of God, why would they have to resuscitate in the last day?

Joseph: Because Christ’s redemptive work has to restore everything affected by sin. One of the consequences of sin is that we have to suffer from physical death, in which the soul is separated from the body. But in the beginning, God didn’t create us like that. So God has to restore us completely, and this will happen on the last day. Then we will be in the heaven but with a body similar to Christ’s[2].

Michael: With our glorified bodies.

Joseph: Exactly, that’s what Saint Paul means when he talks about resurrection “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption: it shall rise in incorruption. It is sown in dishonour: it shall rise in glory. It is sown in weakness: it shall rise in power. It is sown a natural body: it shall rise a spiritual body. If there be a natural body, there is also a spiritual body(1 Cor 15,42-44).

And for all these reasons if we accept that those who died and saved are with Christ, we do not doubt that they can make petitions.

Pauline: I don’t see that in that way. I believe that they can be with Christ but quiet and in holy peace; without knowing what is happening in the earth or even worrying about it.

Joseph: In the Bible, you can see that those who are in God’s presence can make petitions. For example, in the revelation’s book you can see the martyrs crying out to God “And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying: How long, O Lord (Holy and True), dost thou not judge and revenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And white robes were given to every one of them one; And it was said to them that they should rest for a little time till their fellow servants and their brethren, who are to be slain even as they, should be filled up. (Rev 6,9-11).

In the first place they can ask and pray and their prayers are listened to, and in the second place, you can see that they knew what had happened in the earth because otherwise they would not know if he had done them justice[3].

Michael: But how can they know about what is happening if only God can see and know everything? For example, how could Mary the Virgin attend at the same time as she receives the millions of petitions from a lot of people?

Joseph: The reason is that we are used to seeing things in a human way and we think that time and the events happen beyond that in the same way as in our reality, but that’s not true. We can’t understand how it’s beyond, but we do know, thanks to the Bible that those who are in the presence of God can know what is happening.

Michael: Is that written in the Bible?

Joseph: For example, in the Bible Jesus told us that in the sky the angels rejoice whenever a sinner is converted “so I say to you, there shall be joy before the angels of God upon one sinner doing penance…” (Luke15,10).

Can you imagine that in many places of the Word and at the same time, many sinners are converted? Wouldn’t the angels know this only because they are not omniscient?[4]

Michael: No, because they know it through God.

Joseph: Exactly, and in the same way that those who are saved in God’s presence know about what is happening here. Remember that Jesus said that we’ll be like angels in the sky (Matt 22,30) if they rejoice (this also means that they can worry) for a sinner’s conversion. Can we not tell the same about those who are like angels?

We can find other example in the letter to Hebrews. In Chapter 11, the author mentions all the prophets and saints dead in antiquity, and then in Chapter 12 versicle 1, it refers to them as a cloud of witnesses that we have around us “And therefore we are also having so great a cloud of witnesses over our head, laying aside every weight and sin which surrounds us, let us run by patience to the fight proposed to us”. (Heb 12,1)[5] If this is not enough, later in the same book, they are mentioned as assembly of the firstborn enrolled in the heaven with the angels “you are come to mount Sion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to the company of many thousands of angels, and to the church of the firstborn who are written in the heavens, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the just made perfect.” (Heb 12,22-23)

So if we put all these pieces together, we can see that the teaching of the catholic church has meaning because we know from the Bible that: 1) Those who are saved are in the presence of God, 2) They can make petitions, 3) They can know everything through God, 4) They don’t stop loving us, or are indifferent to our feelings and needs, 5) They wish our good

Taking all this into consideration, it’s not illogical to think that they can pray and intercede for us 

Pauline: But I don’t believe that it is necessary to ask them to pray for me because I can go to Jesus Christ directly.

Michael: that’s true. In the Bible, Jesus said: “Jesus saith to him: I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No man cometh to the Father, but by me.” (John 14,6)

Pauline: The Bible also says that “For there is one God: and one mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” (1 Tim 2,5)

Joseph: First, we have to distinguish between the different types of mediation. There are two types. The first one can be only made by Christ because as a real man and real God, he was the only one able to die for us and redeem mankind. The other type is the intercession in which the Christians joined to Christ pray and intercede for each other. For example, you do accept to pray for each other, don’t you?

Michael: Of course.

Joseph: But even alive, you do not usurp the role of Christ as the only mediator. Do you?

Michael: Not, of course not.

Joseph: In the same way those who are in heaven don’t do it because their prayers and our prayers are always made in the name of Christ. As we say in the Holy Mass, “By whom and with whom, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, all honor and glory be unto thee, O Father almighty, world without end. Amen”.

Pauline:  But I have to go back about the same: I think that I don’t need to ask any saint to intercede because I can go directly to Christ.

Joseph: Reasoning that way, I could also think that I don’t need anyone alive to pray for me because I can pray and ask for myself. It is a fact that we can pray for ourselves, but remember that God wanted to make us sharers in his saving work and so he feels pleased when we pray for each other.

There is no reason to separate personal prayer with communal prayer. It’s not the et-et, but the aut-aut, for it is not to replace one's own prayer for the intercession of the saints, but to add our own prayer to one of them, all together as a community of love.

If we look again at saint Paul’s words when he said that Christ is the only one mediator, we can see that before that, he said “I desire therefore, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for all men.” This shows that he understands that the intercession for each other is not a problem with the unique mediation of Christ.

Michael: I still cannot find a text in the Bible where someone alive had communicated with someone dead and this last person had heard.

Joseph: Of course, there is that text in the Bible.

Pauline: Where?

Joseph:  In the Acts of Apostles is told about a Christian woman named Tabitha who died. After praying, Peter goes to her and he sends her to resurrect. She does not only hear this but obeys the order of the apostle “And they all being put forth, Peter, kneeling down, prayed. And turning to the body, he said: Tabitha, arise. And she opened her eyes and, seeing Peter, sat up.” (Acts 9,40)

Michael: Yes, but it was God who raised her.

Joseph: Of course, the fact is that Peter (a living person) went to Tabitha (a dead person) and she heard him through God. We agree on this last point; the important thing is that she heard him.

Pauline: I don’t know, I only see my catholic friends and family praying to the saints and they forget about God.

Joseph: If that happens, it’s because of an excess or a departure from the faith that has to be corrected, but the deviations are not corrected denying a truth, but teaching it correctly.

It’s not about stop asking and praying to God to ask and pray to the saints. It’s about joining our prayers to theirs. It’s not a single voice crying out to God; there are thousands, millions, all in communion interceding for each other because we love each other.

Pauline: You overlook that God does not share His glory with anyone. The Bible says: “I the Lord, this is my name: I will not give my glory to another, nor my praise to graven things.” (Isa 42,8)

Joseph: The glory of God for being God he doesn’t share with anyone but he also glorifies his creatures. Because when he glorifies them, he glorifies the work of his hands. As an example of this, Saint Paul says that if we are children, “And if sons, heirs also; heirs indeed of God and joint heirs with Christ: yet so, if we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified with him.” (Rom 8,17). Jesus also said about his disciples, “And the glory which thou hast given me, I have given to them: that, they may be one, as we also are one.” (John 17,22). As you can see it’s not about removing the glory to God to give it to the saints, it’s about glorifying God for what he has done with the saints. We call it veneration.

Pauline: But when a catholic person kneels before a saint, is that veneration? Because Saint Peter didn’t allow another Christian man (Cornelius) to kneel before him: “But Peter lifted him up, saying: Arise: I myself also am a man.” (Acts 10, 26). Similarly when John kneels before the angel: “And I, John, who have heard and seen these things. And, after I had heard and seen, I fell down to adore before the feet of the angel who shewed me the things. And he said to me: See thou do it not. For I am thy fellow servant, and of thy brethren the prophets and of them that keep the words of the prophecy of this book. Adore God.” (Rev 22,8-9)

Joseph: Of course, but if you see both cases closely, the people there wanted to kneel with the intention of adoring and that would be idolatry. There are some gestures and symbolic acts which mean it is related to the intention of doing it. This is the case of genuflection. That’s the reason why we can find in the Bible people who kneel before others and that was not bad. For example, when Solomon the king gave a throne to his mother and he knelt before her, at that moment no one believed that he was worshipping (1 Kgs 13,35-36). Do you remember that?

Michael: I do.

Joseph: Another example is when Obadiah knelt before Elijah the prophet who says nothing (1 Kgs 18.7). The community of prophets knelt before Elisha (2 Kgs 2:15) and Daniel knelt before the angel Gabriel (2 Kgs 2.15). There are many more examples like those in the Bible but these that I’m telling you are enough to show you that the reason that made Cornelius and John act poorly was that their intention was to adore.

If you look closely at the biblical text it says Cornelio’s intention: “And it came to pass that when Peter was come in, Cornelius came to meet him and falling at his feet adored.” (Acts 10,25). On the other biblical text about John this is clear: “And I, John, who have heard and seen these things. And, after I had heard and seen, I fell down to adore before the feet of the angel who shewed me the things.” (Rev 22,8)

Nobody can really know if a person is on knees, that it’s to adore or to venerate. The only way to know is from the person who is doing the act, because we can’t see on the inside. It is really dangerous if we judge the hearth intention accusing others of idolatry because we may be misjudging. This kind of behavior is called rash judgment by Catholics.

Up to this point, we got to go. After we said goodbye kindly, we each went our own way.

NOTES

[1] Jehovah witnesses and Adventists add a comma in the biblical text to imply that what Christ really means was “Truly I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise” or of another way: I say to you today that one day you will be with me in paradise”. This argument can’t be sustained because Jesus never talked like this. Every time that Jesus emphasized something using this expression αμην αμην λεγω σοιTruly, I tell you” (other Bibles translate “Amen I say to thee”, he never used the “today”, at least that what he was referring to would happen on the same day (See Matt 5,26; 26,34; Mark 14,30; John 3,3.5.11;13,38;21,18). About this is said that Jesus was not that same day in the paradise (John 20,17) but these words do not refer to the spiritual paradise in where it is said live the ones who enjoy the divine life. The thief descended that same day with Christ to the place of rest of the deceased people before Christ’s resurrection, but because of the price he was on the paradise because in there he enjoyed the divinity like the other saints.

[2] That’s why in the Catholic Church, we distinguish between the particular judgment that happens to every person immediately after his death (Heb 9,27) of the final judgment that will happen after the resurrection and in which God will give solemn sentence to all people (Rev 20,10).

[3] Besides this text, there is another in Revelations where you can see that the prayers of all saints are offered to God. We shouldn’t exclude those saints who already enjoy God’s vision: “And another angel came and stood before the altar, having a golden censer: and there was given to him much incense, that he should offer of the prayers of all saints, upon the golden altar which is before the throne of God. And the smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended up before God from the hand of the angel.” (Rev 8,3-4)

[4] Another example where you can see that the angels can hear the prayers of people through God without being omniscient is in Genesis 48,16 where Jacob ask the blessing of the angel over his grandchildren, “The angel that delivereth me from all evils, bless these boys: and let my name be called upon them, and the names of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac; and may they grow into a multitude upon the earth.” (Ps 148,2)

[5] A similar idea is expressed in 1 Cor 4,9 “For I think that God hath set forth us apostles, the last, as it were men appointed to death. We are made a spectacle to the world and to angels and to men.

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