Communion of Saints

views updated May 21 2018


The article of the Apostles' Creed that in Latin reads "Credo in sanctorum communionem," is translated as "I believe in the communion of saints." The Christian reality underlying this article is so central and so pervasive in the life of the Church that it was lived and borne along in the movement of the Church's life long before it became the object of theological reflection. Once such reflection did begin, the very amplitude of the doctrine favored a variety of emphases, kindred enough, in evolving its many aspects; and the same cause often resulted in a treatment more piecemeal than synthetic.

The present treatment sets forth only the general outlines of the doctrine, with special aspects left to other headings. The order is the following: (1) communio as mutual interchange, (2) New Testament foundation, (3) patristic and creedal origins, and (4) later historical developments.

Communio as Mutual Interchange. Beginning in the 19th century, the main emphasis has been on the mutual interchange and interplay of supernatural energies and goods among all the members of the tripartite Church, triumphant in heaven, expectant in purgatory, and militant on Earth. The stress is on what some theologians came to refer to as "horizontal" sharing by all the members in the varied common life of the Church. It is succinctly explained in Pope leo xiii's encyclical on the Eucharist, Mirae caritatis (May 28, 1902, Acta Sanctae Sedis 34:649):

As everyone knows, the communion of saints is nothing else but a mutual sharing in help, satisfaction, prayer and other good works, a mutual communication among all the faithful, whether those who have reached heaven, or who are in the cleansing fire, or who are still pilgrims on the way in this world. For all these are come together to form one living city whose Head is Christ, and whose law is love.

Explanations in the writings of Leo's successors in the 20th century develop along similar lines. Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium ) while looking to the Lord's coming in glory states "at the present time some of his disciples are pilgrims on earth," some "have died and are being purified," while still others "are in glory" contemplating God as He is. All, "in varying degrees and different ways" share in the same charity toward God and neighbor. "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." Those who have been "received into their heavenly home" and are "present to the Lord" (cf. 2 Cor. 5:8) do not cease to intercede for us with the Father, sharing the merits they acquired on Earth through Christ Jesus (LG, 49).

In explaining the Creed the Catechism of the Catholic Church links the communio sanctorum to the Church to the point of stating explicitly, "The communion of saints is the Church" (n. 946). It presents the twofold meaning of communio sanctorum sharing in holy things (sancta ) and among holy persons (sancti ) as complementary.

Sancta sanctis! ("God's holy gifts for God's holy people") is proclaimed by the celebrant in most Eastern liturgies during the elevation of the holy Gifts before the distribution of communion. The faithful (sancti ) are fed by Christ's holy body and blood (sancta ) to grow in the communion of the Holy Spirit (koinonia ) and to the world (n. 948).

The Catechism describes in some detail the "goods" that are shared under the headings: communion in the faith, communion of the sacraments (especially the Eucharist), communion of charisms, communion in charity, and, alluding to the primitive Christian community in Jerusalem, holding all things in common (nn. 949953).

New Testament Context. Though the emphasis is on the members' solidarity and vital interdependence, it is clearly taught that this horizontal sharing of goods and life is real only as suspended from a "vertical" communion, i.e., from a sharing in Jesus Christ and in His Spirit, realized in and through faith and the Sacraments (see sac ramental theology), especially the Eucharist. If in Christ's social Body, under the quickening Spirit of love, there is a radial diffusion of love and of its goods, it is fundamentally because there is in Christ a descent of divine love poured forth into men's hearts by the Spirit of Christ, a rebirth from above communicated in water and the Spirit, a force from on high that makes Christ's glory in His various members turn to the service and benefit of all (Rom 5.5; Jn 3.5; Ti 3.56).

The ground is found in the divine life that the Father has communicated to the fallen world, drawing people afresh into a real, though distant, sharing in the one life that the Father and His Son in their one Spirit live together as their own (Jn 17.2026). It is only in His Son made Man that the Father has brought men into the sphere of divine life (Jn 14.624; 1 Jn 2.23; 5.1113), made them "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pt 1.4), and given them communion with Himself and with His Son (1 Jn1.13; 1 Cor 1.9). The Christian shares, through faith and the Sacraments, in all the stages of Christ's life from His lowliness in suffering and death (Phil 3.10; 1 Pt 4.13) to His risen glory (1 Pt 5.1; Rom 8.17). The Christian shares initially in all the blessings of the New Covenant, brought by Jesus and already realized in Him, the dead and risen Lord (1 Cor 9.23). It is a communion with Christ most intensely realized by partaking sacramentally of the Lord's body and blood (1 Cor 10.1617); it is a communion sealed in the gift that is the Spirit of Christ (2 Cor 13.13; Phil 2.1; Gal 4.6; Rom 8.1417).

The common life that Christians share with Christ and with His Father in their one Spirit (Eph 2.18) leads of itself to a sharing of life among all those quickened by the same Spirit of Christ (1 Jn 1.3, 7). Among Christ's members there exists a most varied inward-outward inter-play of new life; an interchange of supernatural energies and gifts, of helps and services of all forms (Phlm 17; Rom 12.13; 15.2627; 2 Cor 8.4; 9.13; Phil 4.1420; Gal6.6; Heb 13.16; Acts 2.42). Sharing in the "trials" of Jesus brings into play a communion in suffering with the social Body of Christ that turns to the good of the whole (Col 1.24; 2 Cor 4.12, 15; 1.5, 7). The interchange of new life to the "building up the body of Christ" (Eph 4.12) is shown and realized in mutual prayer and almsgiving (Eph 6.1819; Rom 15.30; 2 Cor 8.1315). "The Church is in its truest being both a shared destiny and a shared existence with Christ, and with one another in Christ".

Patristic Period. The Apostles' Creed in its present form, conventionally labeled T (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer [32d ed. Freiburg 1963] 30), is an expanded version of the old Roman baptismal creed, labeled R (see H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 12 for a 4th-century Latin text of R). R's development into T took place, seemingly, in southwestern Gaul during the 5th to the 8th centuries. Among the additions that T makes to R is the article "sanctorum communionem."

This addition presents a difficult problem of the history and interpretation of T. First, the provenance of the clause is debated, some holding for an eastern and Greek origin, others for a western and Latin.

Second, the original meaning of the clause is disputed. There are two main opinions held. The first view puts a personal construction on the clause and translates it "fellowship or common life with the saints." In this personal interpretation the "saints" are either the martyrs and confessors proper, both living and departed, or all the baptized faithful without exception. The second view, sometimes called the "real" interpretation, and commonly proposed by those holding a Greek origin of the clause, translates it "a sharing in, or partaking of, holy things." The holy things or realities (hence the "real") are either the faith and Sacraments in general, or, in particular, the consecrated elements of the Eucharist.

This real interpretation is not apersonal. In the thought and sensibility of the early Church, sharing in holy things, and above all in the Eucharist, meant a deeply personal meeting with the glorious Christ sanctifying His members through His mysteries present in His Church. "You have shown yourself to me face to face, O Christ," wrote St. Ambrose, "I find you in your Sacraments" (Apologia prophetae David 12.58; Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 271 v., indexes 4 v. [Paris 187890] 14: 875). Sharing in the Eucharist was also a profession and a realization of a profound personal union with all Christ's members and with the whole present company of the saints in the Church. Finally, sharing in the Eucharist had a deeply personal eschatological direction, grounding the faithful's hope in the full communion of the coming kingdom with the Father and the Lord in their one Spirit, and with all the blessed.

An exclusively linguistic approach to the problem of original meaning is inconclusive. If the original meaning is sought in the extant creedal commentaries and homilies, chiefly of a south Gallic provenance, dating from the 5th to the 8th centuries, the personal interpretation predominates, but even in the West the words were often taken as referring to the sacrament (see J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds [3d ed. London 1972] 393).

But one must also consider the living background of early Christian belief and practice, which came to a focus in this creedal article. Before the clause was introduced into the creed, what it stood for was long since part of the living faith of the Church.

In the thought and devotion of the early Church, the mystery of holy Church is the sacrament of the glorious Savior, giving His light and life to the world ("What was visible in the work of our Redeemer, passed over into the Sacraments," wrote St. Leo the Great [Serm. 74.2; Patrologia Latina 54:398]). It is only through the faith and Sacraments of holy Church that one is made a sharer in Him who is "the holy one of God" (Jn 6.69); it is only under His headship that His members, once consecrated through His Spirit in the Sacraments, are enabled to adore and to serve the movement of His life in and through His whole Body, with an outreach of love compassing their fellow members who have gone ahead, and looking forward in hope to the full communion of the coming great kingdom. Above all it is in the Eucharist that the glorious Lord is supremely present and active in communicating His holiness to men; it is here that the Christian shares in Christ's lordship over the newness of life, and is qualified to serve the range of that new life over the whole Body, both in those that live here below and in those that live beyond.

This awareness of sacramental communion with Christ carried with it a vivid sense of the diffusive sanctity of the whole Body of Christ sharing in the mystery of Christ. In a study of the Church's saving mediation, as the early Fathers portrayed it under the image of the Church as Mother, Karl Delahaye writes:

The early Church considers all the saints as both subject and object of her own saving action.The Church as mother, comprising all united to Christ in faith and Baptism, is the communion of saints. If her motherhood is grounded on her inward mysterious union with Christ, then all who have entered into this communion with Christ share in the Church's motherhood. The communion of the saints is always at the same time a communion which saves and sanctifies. (Erneuerung der Seelsorgsformen aus der Sicht der frühen Patristik [Freiburg 1958] 142143. See 134, 148149.)

If the whole Church is, to adapt a word of Ignatius of Antioch, a fruitful "bearer of holy things" (γιοφόρα: To the Smyrnaeans, introd.), the reason is that the whole Church shares in the Spirit of Christ. As Pope Martin I (649655) wrote to the Church of Carthage: "Whatever is ours, is yours, according to our undivided sharing in the Spirit" (Ep. 4; Patrologia Latina 87.147).

Subsequent Developments. In the Middle Ages the two orientations lived on. In Alexander of Hales's Summa theologica the two are merely juxtaposed (lib. 3,p. 3, inq. 2, tr. 2, q. 2, t. 12; tom. 4 [Quaracchi 1948] 1131, 1136). Both St. Albert and St. Thomas give a more synthetic view, indicating that the real-sacramental communion is the ground of the varied horizontal sharing. For St. Albert, see In Ioannem 6.64; In 4 sent. 45.1; De sacramento Eucharistiae 1.5; 4.17. St. Thomas writes: "The good of Christ is communicated to all Christians ; and this communication is realized through the Sacraments of the Church, in which the power of Christ's Passion is at work " (Exp. symb. apost. 10). But the good that Christ communicates is chiefly "the Holy Spirit, who through the unity of love communicates the blessings of Christ's members one with another" (Summa theologiae 3, 82.6 ad 3).

From the Reformation onward, the emphasis is strongly on the validity and the modes of the interplay of life among the members of the tripartite Church. Theologians were aware that the article "is variously explained by the doctors" (J. de Lugo, De virtute fidei divinae 13.4.112), but generally their preference is for the personal interpretation (see F. Suárez, De virtutibus infusis 13.4.10; R. de Arriaga, De fide divina 13.3.16). The catechisms, from Bellarmine on, reflect this trend (see M. Ramsauer, "Die Kirche in den Katechismen," Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie 73 [1951] 129169, 313346). In the early 19th century the two orientations begin to come together. In J. A. Möhler's phrase, "a communion in the holy and of the saints" (Die Einheit in der Kirche, ed. J. R. Geiselmann [Cologne 1957] 315) they are seen as complementary one to the another.

Bibliography: a. piolanti, Il mistero della comunione dei santi (Rome 1957). l. hertling, Communio. Chiesa e papato nell' antichità cristiana (Rome 1961). a. michel, "La Communion des Saints," Doctor Communis 9 (1956) 1125. j. p. kirsch, The Doctrine of the Communion of Saints in the Ancient Church (St. Louis 1910). h. seesemann, Der Begriff κοινωνία im Neuen Testament (Giessen 1933). l. s. thornton, The Common Life in the Body of Christ (3d ed. London 1950). a. r. george, Communion with God in the New Testament (London 1953). s. muÑoz iglesias, "Concepto biblico de κοινωνία," XIII Semana Biblica Española, 1952 (Madrid 1953) 195224. m. thurian, The Eucharistic Memorial, tr. j. g. davies (2 v., Richmond, Va. 1961). Communio (English) 15 (Summer 1998), issue devoted to the Communion of Saints. r. goizueta, Caminemos con Jesús: Toward a Hispanic/Latino Theology of Accompaniment (Maryknoll 1995). e. ilogu, Christianity and Ibo Culture (Leiden 1974). m. browne, ed., African Synod: Documents, Reflections, Perspectives (Maryknoll 1996). e. a. johnson, Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints (New York 1998).

[f. x. lawlor/eds.]

Communion of Saints

views updated Jun 11 2018

Communion of Saints. A belief professed in the Christian Apostles' creed. It points to the whole company of the faithful, living and dead, in union with Christ and with each other. The Latin communio sanctorum could also mean ‘communion of holy things’, i.e. a sharing especially in the sacraments.

communion of saints

views updated May 21 2018

communion of saints a fellowship between Christians living and dead.

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