Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
One of the oldest shared beliefs of Christians is the Communion of Saints. Others might refer to this similarly as the “cloud of witnesses” or the “invocation of the saints.” Persuaded increasingly by recent scholarship, many believe that the Apostles Creed was formed at the close of the first century, making the Communion of Saints a critical component of the early Christian Faith.
This creed is the oldest creed known to the primitive Church, and until the recent past, most Christian denominations held close to this creed and recited it regularly. The early creeds are not mere religious utterances — they are claims and beliefs that the early martyrs thought worthy of death and torture. Justin Martyr is a notable figure who was known for his many letters to the Caesar at the time, defending and clearing up the claims behind the notorious creed.
Despite this, many Protestant believers will say that they believe in the Communion of Saints but toss away its true meaning. In their search for truth, they often miss the reality that the more one studies the primitive Church, the more that person will come to see the Catholic Church as it still is today, unchanged. So I want to explore the true and original meaning of the “Communion of Saints.”
Since the Catholic Church and the Protestants acknowledge—although with varying degrees—a common authority, the Bible, I will start there. First, the reader should consider that the angels and saints in heaven do not hear and listen and understand the picture as we humans of flesh and blood do here on earth. We are confined to a small spectrum of frequencies recognized by our limited senses produced and interpreted by the body. I suppose there would be no one who would think humans on earth are limitless. But those residing in heaven, we know from Scripture, have much more clarity, communion with Gods plan, and more. St. Paul writes, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). As an illustration, James Gibbons, early American apologist, and cardinal of the Church, compares this to the bird who is caged and is suddenly released from its confinement: Once his spirit rises into the air, he can now see everything and his understanding is that much better.
Think of this time we live in compared to only 200 years ago. If you lived back then and had a friend who said that in a short time, we would be able to communicate from San Francisco to New York instantaneously, that person would have been called a fool, but today he would be called a prophet. Not only can the message be understood, but recognition of that person’s voice can be distinguished and also today we have video calling where we can see everything.
As early as man has known God, man has known the angels. Let us not forget that man did not reside on earth as we know it in the beginning, but Eden was, in some ways, a perfect earth before the fall. The point is, the angels knew us, and us them. We see very early in sacred scripture that the Patriarch Joshua on his deathbed asks “may the angel who delivered me from all evils bless these boys” (Genesis 48:16). Joshua was a man who God singularly blessed, and Joshua surely could have asked for God alone to bless the children, but Joshua understood that it is useful to have others intercede on one’s behalf as well.
The Archangel Raphael says in the Book of Tobit, “Now when you, Tobit, and Sarah prayed, it was I who presented the record of your prayer before the Glory of the Lord; and likewise whenever you used to bury the dead” (12:12). How would the angel have presented the petition to the Lord if he could not hear the prayer?
Jesus, too, spoke often about the angels. In Luke 15:10, he says that all the angels in heaven celebrate more for one sinner doing penance. But what is penance? It is an interior alteration of the heart and will by satisfaction for a previous sin. This passage is biblical proof that the angels and saints have acquainted themselves in heaven not only with actions and words but with our very thoughts. What else did St. Paul mean when he said that “we are a spectacle to the world, to the angels, and to men” (1 Corinthians 4:9)?
We have discussed angels, which are comfortable to hold in high regard, and it is somewhat more convincing to think them supernatural to us. But Jesus also says that we who enter heaven will be like the angelic spirits (Matthew 22:30). Paul even says that we will have authority over the angels and judge them (1 Corinthians 6:3). That blows my mind. We know that here on earth, the saints can intercede for us as Abraham petitioned God to save some from the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and God replied gracefully, even though there were none righteous (Genesis 38). Moses also interceded with his arms raised while fighting off the Amalekites (Exodus 17). We see all over the Acts of the Apostles and in the example of Jesus himself that we should pray for one another, asking God for blessings, mercy, healing, forgiveness, and even resurrection.
Now I ask non-Catholics, knowing full and well that we as sinners can pray for one another and God to grant those petitions, why it is so hard to believe that the saints in heaven, in whom only charity abounds, cannot lend their prayers on our behalf? Is the power of the saint relinquished only because they have passed into eternal glory? Or, do those who do not believe in the Communion of Saints believe that the saints in heaven are so caught up in the glory of God that they are ignorant of their brethren on earth? Paul tells us in many places (not to ignore the quote I provided earlier) that we will have many responsibilities in heaven, and we see in Revelation that the bowls are the prayers of the saints which are delivered to God (Revelation 8:4).
“Delivered”! In heaven, charity is triumphant, and yet how can there be charity without mindfulness of those still on earth, especially when those who are in heaven know firsthand the travail saints on earth experience? Look at this way: if three things that remain are faith, hope and love (being an action), then in heaven the saints don’t need faith because they are seeing; they don’t need hope because they have won the race. This leaves love, the “greatest of these,” that is the final actionable responsibility of the saints.
I’ll borrow a quote from Cardinal Gibbons once more:
“To ask the prayers of our brethren in heaven is not only conformable to Holy Scripture but is prompted by the instincts of our nature. The Catholic doctrine of the Communion of Saints robs death of its terrors, while the Reformers of the sixteenth century, in denying the Communion of Saints, not only inflicted a deadly wound on the creed but also severed the tenderest chords of the human heart. They broke asunder the holy ties that unite heaven with the earth – the soul in the flesh with the soul released from the flesh. If my brother leaves me to cross the sea, I believe that he continues to pray for me. And if he crosses the narrow sea of death and lands on the shores of eternity, why should he not pray for me still? What does death destroy? The body. The soul still lives and moves and has it's being It thinks and wills and remembers and loves. The dross of sin and selfishness and hatred are burned by the salutary fires of contrition, and nothing remains but the pure gold of charity.”
Remember that while the Catholic Church declares it necessary for salvation to pray to God, she merely asserts that it is “good and useful to invoke the saints” (Council of Trent, Sess. xxv). We ask them merely to pray to their God, which is our God, for the same things we ask each other here on earth to pray for.
I will not depart this topic without giving some more evidence that the Communion of Saints is original Christian teaching. It is no mere opinion of the modern or medieval Church or some “invented” doctrine. We can disagree about the interpretation of scripture, but I submit to you to consider what the earliest Christians recorded as common Faith.
I don’t think there is a single Christian who doesn’t want to be in doctrinal communion with the apostles. The Catholic Church is the only who calls themselves “apostolic” because it is the one that claims that the teaching and the authority of the Apostles are handed down straight from bishop to bishop. Let me assist this claim with prominent names and quotes from the primitive Church. Bear in mind that when I date these, the earliest of the gospels are now dated by scholars to be around A.D. 90, so these writings have to be very primitive:
Hermas of Rome – A.D. 80
“But those who are weak and slothful hesitate to ask anything from the Lord. But the Lord is full of compassion and gives without fail to all to ask him. But having been strengthened by the holy angel, and having obtained from him such intercession, and not being slothful, why do you not ask understanding of the Lord, and receive it from him?”
St. Clement of Alexandria – A.D. 207
“In this way is the true Christian always pure for prayer. He also prays in the society of angels, as being already angelic of rank, and he is never out of their holy keeping; and though he pray alone, he has the choir of Saints standing with him.”
Early Christian Inscription – A.D. 250
“Blessed Sazon who aged nine years, may the true Christ receive your spirit in peace, and pray for us.”
St. Cyprian of Carthage – A.D. 250
“Let us remember one another in concord and unanimity. Let us on both sides pray for one another. . . . that if any one of us, by the swiftness of divine condescension, shall go from here first, our love may continue in the presence of the Lord, and our prayers for our brothers and sisters not cease in the presence of the Father’s mercy.”
St. Augustine – A.D. 400
“It is true that Christians pay religious honor to the memory of the martyrs, both to excite us to imitate them, and to obtain a share in their merits and the assistance of their prayers.”
“For even the souls of the pious dead are not separated from the Church, which even now is the kingdom if Christ; otherwise there would be no remembrance made of them at the altar of God in the partaking in the Body of Christ, nor would it do any good in danger to run to baptism, that we might now pass from this life without it.”