Retelling an ancient story to illustrate the concept of the communion of saints, Msgr. William H. Shannon set his narrative in a tiny, whitewashed chapel on a Greek island on the Aegean Sea.
At the most, the chapel can hold 50 people, he explained.
One day, a visitor asked the church’s priest how many people worship there each week.
“Five thousand,” the priest replied.
The priest was including in his count all the saints, angels and the chapel’s faithful departed in the number who take part in the Eucharist each Sunday, Msgr. Shannon explained, noting that the story illustrates how the communion of saints includes both the church on Earth and the church in heaven.
“We really join their liturgy,” said Msgr. Shannon, a diocesan priest and professor emeritus of religious studies at Nazareth College in Pittsford. “We don’t ask that they join in ours.”
Our connection to the saints is twice celebrated by the church in November: All Saints Day on Nov. 1 honors the saints in heaven, while on All Souls Day Nov. 2 people pray for souls in purgatory who are being purified before entering heaven, he said.
What is a saint?
The term saint can be applied to several groups, according to Msgr. Shannon.
Mortal saints, also called the church militant, are members of the church who are still living their earthly existence. The concept of mortal saints has biblical precedent; St. Paul referred to members of the church at Ephesus and at Colossae as saints.
That salutation, however, was not one Paul extended to the Corinthians.
“Paul had a lot of problems with the Corinthians. He was not sure how saintly they were, so instead of ‘The saints at Corinth,’ he said, ‘Those who are called to be saints,’” Msgr. Shannon noted, quoting 1 Corinthians 1-2.
Msgr. Shannon said today’s parishioners also may fall into the category of those called to be saints.
“We are not perfect by any means, but since we are members of the body of Christ, we can legitimately be called saints,” he said.
The term saints also refers to immortal saints, also called the church triumphant, who have died and received new life, Msgr. Shannon said.
The church has canonized some of the most famous immortal saints, he noted, while others — including Jesus’ apostles — were made saints through the acclaim of the whole church. Still others have never been officially recognized as saints but have achieved the ideal state — full union with God.
“We don’t pray for the (immortal) saints, because they are with God,” Msgr. Shannon said.
Though individual saints also may have a feast day, All Saints Day is set aside to honor all saints collectively. Pope Gregory IV, who was pontiff from 827 to 844, is credited with instituting the observance of the Feast of All Saints, according to Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Catholic History.
“The idea of celebrating any of the saints’ days began in early Christian communities when people went to where the saints were buried,” said Father Walter Wainwright, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Elmira, which comprises the worship sites of St. Anthony, St. Patrick and Ss. Peter and Paul. “They would go to cemeteries on the anniversary of their death, for example, and would gather there and honor the memory of the saints.”
The Feast of All Saints, which is situated in the liturgical calendar next to the Feast of All Souls and near the Feast of Christ the King on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, helps prepare us for Christ’s second coming, Msgr. Shannon said.
“The end of the liturgical year is also the season of the harvest,” Father Wainwright added. “Our whole life has a cycle, and at the end of life that is God’s harvesting of us. Our earthly journey is coming to a close, and we enter into a new life.”
He noted that the immortal saints serve not only as an example of how to journey toward heaven but also as models of Christian living.
“Their lives are a source of encouragement,” Father Wainwright said. “So they have found Christ, we can find Christ, too.”
A third group, the church suffering, refers to souls in purgatory who are undergoing purification to join with other saints in heaven.
Souls in purgatory are the focus of All Souls Day, when we remember those who have died and pray that their souls might be united with God in heaven, said Sister Donna Fannon, MHSH, a campus minister with the Cornell Catholic Community at Cornell University in Ithaca.
“There’s certainly this hope that God desires to bring all creation back to him,” Sister Fannon said. “Jesus’ work was to reconcile all of creation back to God, and we believe that that is happening now and beyond the grave.”
Historically, purgatory was thought to be a place where people underwent long-term punishments for their sins, Msgr. Shannon said. However, that understanding changed with the most recent version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was published in 1994.
“The new Catechism of the Catholic Church replaced the suffering of temporal punishment of sin with the idea of purification,” he said.
Use in the creed
Msgr. Shannon noted that the communion of saints encompasses all three groups: mortal and immortal saints and souls in purgatory on their way to becoming saints.
In the Apostles’ Creed, the phrase “communion of saints” is situated between the phrases “the holy catholic church” and “the forgiveness of sins.” Because of this position, the phrase can be understood as referring to the universal church and to such sacraments as baptism, which was the means by which members of the early church received forgiveness for sins.
The phrase in the creed also can be translated two ways from its Latin text, Msgr. Shannon noted. The Latin communio sanctorum can be translated either as the communion of saints or the communion of sacred things, he said, adding that “sacred things” could be understood to include the Eucharist and other sacraments. The Catechism notes that “sacred things” also could include the sharing of faith, charisms, the Lord’s goods and charity.
“In this solidarity with all men, living or dead, which is founded on the communion of saints, the least of our acts done in charity redounds to the profit of all,” the Catechism states. “Every sin harms this communion.”
How saints relate
Throughout their years of faith formation, young people are taught to connect with both individual saints and the body of saints, catechists note. Jan Borromei, director of faith formation for Sacred Heart and St. Mary parishes in Auburn St. Ann Parish in Owasco, said one way she helps young people connect with the saints is by having children study a patron saint for annual All Saints celebrations.
“We have them share something about their special saints,” Borromei said.
Some people view saints as patrons or the privileged dead who are able to manipulate the heavens to help those on earth, he said, noting that he personally thinks of them as friends who have left us jobs to do through the examples they set, such as ministry to the poor.
“They leave that task to us and that challenge to us,” he said.
Sister Fannon said saints can share a vision of the treasures and rewards that await us in the afterlife. Ultimately, they can give us a view of life beyond the boundaries of our own community, nation and our earthly world.
“I talk about the communion of saints in terms of the wider community,” she said. “It transcends humanity and transcends death. We have people whose experience in the past we can look to, and we have the hope that we will be able to be part of the union of saints after death.”