Holy communion of saints

In the canonization of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II on April 27, the Catholic Church celebrates the naming of two more people to the communion of saints.

Apr 24, 2014

By Daniel S. Mulhall
In the canonization of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II on April 27, the Catholic Church celebrates the naming of two more people to the communion of saints.

Canonization provides recognition by the Church that a person lived a life of faith that was heroically virtuous, meaning that he or she lived according to the theological virtues (faith, hope, love) and cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude) in a way that people saw God actively in the person’s life.

When a person is declared a saint by the Church, the Church affirms -- through miracles worked through the intercession of the saint – that the person is in heaven with God. The canonized person then is given a feast day (frequently the day of the person’s death) within the church’s liturgical year, and is remembered in the liturgy.

The concept of the communion of saints has its origins in the Church’s early days, and is one of the primary beliefs of the Church. We proclaim our belief in the communion of saints in the Apostles’ Creed.

In 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, St. Paul develops the theological teaching that all Christians together make up the body of Christ, and that each of us has an important role to play in the life of the Church — while living and after death.

As Paul wrote and we read in 1 Corinthians 12:24-26, “God has so constructed the body as to give greater honour to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honoured, all the parts share its joy.”

From this teaching the Church understands the communion of saints to be a spiritual union of all the members of the Church, living or dead, in purgatory, or in heaven, and who are in a state of holiness.

Those living who are baptized are considered members of the mystical body of Christ and the communion of saints as long as that person is not living in mortal sin. Those who have died – whether preparing for heaven or already living in the presence of God – remain a part of Christ’s body and the communion of saints as long as he or she didn’t die separated from God.

While the Church pays special homage to men and women who have been declared saints, we do not pray to saints. That would be idolatry. All Catholic prayers are addressed to God.

However, Catholics have for centuries offered honour and devotion to the holy men and women who have gone before us, asking that they intercede on our behalf. The idea is a simple one: Just as I can turn to a family member for help when I have a special need, I can turn to a saint for help. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says it this way in No. 957:

“Exactly as Christian communion among our fellow pilgrims brings us closer to Christ, so our communion with the saints joins us to Christ, from whom as from its fountain and head issues all grace, and the life of the people of God itself.”

The Catechism goes on to say in No. 1475 that a “perennial link of charity” exists between the faithful in heaven and those on earth, and that we should call upon the saints and ask for their assistance.

While the process of canonization developed over the centuries, the veneration of the saints (not adoration, only God is adored) has its foundation in the earliest days of the church. The martyrdom of St. Stephen – the first follower of Jesus to die for his faith – is retold with reverence in Chapter 7 of the Acts of the Apostles.

St. Ignatius of Antioch was put to death by the Romans because he refused to give up his faith in Jesus. Ignatius, who apparently learned of Jesus directly from the apostles Peter and John, looked forward to dying for Christ. He wrote that the blood of martyrs became the seed of faith for new Christians.

Ignatius wrote, “Do not do me an untimely kindness. Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ.”

After his death, Ignatius’ bones were taken back to Antioch where they were honoured by the Christians there.

They, not the Church, declared Ignatius a saint. This practice continues until today. The people the Vatican declares saints and canonizes those who have already been declared “with God” by the faithful who have been inspired by their lives. The Vatican simply validates what the living body of Christ has declared to be true.

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