Each time we pray the Nicene Creed, we say, “I believe in the communion of saints.” This statement is filled with profound implications for what it means to be the family of God. You and I are brothers and sisters, children of God created in his own image and likeness. In fact, all human beings are our sisters and brothers.
Jesus saw a brother or sister in every person he met while on earth. His disciples were his brothers, children of the same Father in heaven. Don’t forget about Jesus’ enemies, who sought to end his life. Brotherhood and sisterhood did not depend on whether someone liked Jesus or not. That relationship was as based on God the Father, creator of us all (and of Jesus’ human nature).
As members of Christ’s Church, we are also related to all those who have gone before us and who have entered eternity and are now with God. The Mass of Christian Burial tells us, “In death, life is changed, not ended.” In death, our physical bodies die and return to the dust of the earth until the day of resurrection and final judgment.
But death can never touch our souls, that part made in the image and likeness of God. Once God gives life, it never ends. Neither are our relationships on earth ended in death. Death is only a point of passage, not a final end. What this means is that there are three states of being in the Church. At the present time, some are still living as pilgrims on earth (ourselves). “Others are in glory, contemplating in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is (heaven). Still others have died and are being purified (purgatory)” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #954).
Those in glory are the saints in heaven who see God face-to-face in a most perfect way. By definition, heaven is complete, eternal and perfect union with God. The Catechism tells us the following about the saints in heaven:
So it is that the union of the wayfarers with the brethren who sleep in the peace of Christ is in no way interrupted, but on the contrary, according to the constant faith of the Church, this union is reinforced by an exchange of spiritual goods. Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven (saints) fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness....They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus....So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped. (CCC, #955-956)
The third group who are truly our sisters and brothers are those who are united with God and yet whose union is not yet perfect but will be at sometime. These souls are those we refer to as the souls in purgatory. The Catechism tells the following about praying for the souls in purgatory:
In full consciousness of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the Church in its pilgrim members, from the very earliest days of the Christian religion, has honored with great respect the memory of the dead; and 'because it is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins' she offers her suffrages for them. Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective (CCC, #498).
A consequence of this most wonderful belief is that all through eternity, as we enjoy beyond comprehension the goodness and love of the Trinity, we will also be united perfectly with all those with whom we share heaven and the life of God. Heaven will never be just “God and me.” What it will be is God and all of us united in his love and our love for one another. After all, how could we not share with each other God’s love for us? We are family.
Image: detail from The Last Judgment by Giotto di Bondone.
Questions about Saints
As we prepare to celebrate the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls (November 1 and 2), it's a good time to look at what Catholics believe about saints. It's also important to remember that saints aren't supernatural beings to be worshiped. In fact, in the New Testament, the term saint often is a synonym for Christian. We are all saints and are called again and again to become saints in our lives.
Why do Catholics pray to the Virgin Mary, the saints, and the angels?
Praying to Mary, the saints, and the angels can sound like trying to get "friends in high places" to run interference for you. Although people sometimes seek such "friends" in order to get a speeding ticket fixed, buy merchandise at a lower price or have some problem resolved, for Catholics that is not what devotion to the saints represents.
God alone is the source of all grace and blessing. Saints do not "fix" things for us apart from God or convince God to do X rather than Y. At Vatican II, the bishops taught that the holiness of the Church "is shown constantly in the fruits of grace which the Spirit produces in the faithful and so it must be" (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, #39). Those "fruits of grace" are seen in the lives of saintly disciples, whether canonized or not.
Jesus was fully divine and fully human. As a human, Jesus could be only one gender, live at one time in history, grow up in one human culture, etc. Saints help us to see holiness as possible for ourselves because saints include men and women, married and single people who lived at various times in human history and in various cultures. Saints remind us that, no matter what sacrifices we may need to make in order to cooperate with God's grace, we are not the first people to make those sacrifices. If we ask our friends on earth to pray for us, why not ask our friends in heaven to do the same?
Why does the Catholic Church emphasize saints' relics if Jesus says that the only way to heaven is through him?
Relics do not save people, and the Catholic Church does not teach that they do. Jesus saves people. Relics can, however, remind us of flesh-and-blood people who generously cooperated with God’s grace. Those saints, in turn, can encourage us to cooperate just as generously with God’s grace.
Many Christians can agree that Jesus Christ has saved us through his passion, death and resurrection. They will likely also agree that a person could choose not to accept salvation. How? By that person’s choices.
Saints remind us to make good and generous choices. Relics can remind us of saints (including Mary). All walked this earth and eventually gave God an accounting for their stewardship of resources, time and talent.
The Son of God became a human being, in the person of Jesus Christ, within a specific time and in a designated place. In a sense, relics remind us of Jesus’ Incarnation and of our need—right here, right now—to make choices which reflect and reinforce our identity as followers of Jesus.