What Do We Mean by the Communion of Saints?

This is the tenth in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

Continuing our series on the Four Last Things, in today’s post we consider an aspect of Heaven called the Communion of Saints. I have discovered that it is frequently misunderstood. Many of you know that I write the weekly “Question and Answer” column for the Our Sunday Visitor newspaper. Every once in a while, someone poses a unique question, one that I had never thought of before. such is the case with the question below. It led me to reflect on the deeper experience of what we call the Communion of Saints in Heaven.

My answers are required to be no more than 600 words, so this response is relatively brief.

(There is an online catalogue of my “Question and Answer” columns available here: Msgr. Pope’s OSV Columns.)

Q: The descriptions in the Bible seem to describe a vast amount of people, and the paintings I have seen from the Renaissance make it look rather crowded and busy. Frankly, I hate big cities and crowds. Are these descriptions accurate or am I missing something? Doris Leben, Wichita, Kansas

A: The danger to avoid when meditating on Heaven is taking earthly realities and merely transferring them to Heaven. Even if there are similarities to things on earth, things in Heaven will be experienced in a perfected way, with unspeakable joy.

The more biblical and theological way to understand the multitudes in Heaven is not as a physical crowding but as a deep communion. In other words, the Communion of Saints is not just a lot of people walking about or standing around talking.

St. Paul teaches, So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members, one of another (Rom 12:5). Although we experience this imperfectly here on earth, we will experience it perfectly in Heaven. As members of one another we will have deep communion; we will know and be known in a deep and rich way. Your memories, gifts, and insights will be mine, and mine will be yours. There will be profound understanding and appreciation, a rich love and a sense of how we all complete one another and really are all one in Christ.

Imagine the glory of billions of new thoughts, stories, and insights that will come from being perfectly members of Christ and of one another. Imagine the peace that will come from finally understanding and being understood. This is deep, satisfying, and wonderful communion—not crowds of strangers.

Therefore, the biblical descriptions of Heaven as multitudes should not be understood as mere numbers, but as the richness and glory of communion. The paintings showing “crowds” should be understood as an allegory of deep communion, of being close in a way we can only imagine.

St. Augustine had in mind the wonderful satisfaction of this deep communion with God and with one another in Christ when he described Heaven as Unus Christus amans seipsum (One Christ loving Himself). This is not some selfish Christ turned in on Himself. This is Christ, the Head, in deep communion with all the members of His Body, and all the members in Christ experiencing deep mystical communion with Him and with one another—together swept up into the life of the Trinity. As St. Paul says, you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (1 Cor 3:23).

Answering those who say there is only one Mediator

© José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I recently had an interaction with a commenter on this blog who brought up the common Protestant objection that, since there is one (sole) mediator between God and Man, Jesus, asking the saints to pray for us is useless, wrong and maybe even sinful. Yes it is quite a common objection, more so today that I remember twenty or thirty years ago.

Thus, to the suggestion by another comment that one might ask help from Our Lady, the commenter, (Gerry), objected as such:

JESUS IS THE MEDIATOR , Counselor, Helper, Intercessor, Advocate, and Comforter. MARY IS THE SYMBOL OF THE CHURCH.

  • 1 Timothy 2:5 For there is one God, and there is ONE MEDIATOR between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.
  • Hebrews 12:24 to JESUS THE MEDIATOR of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
  • Hebrews 9:15 For this reason CHRIST IS THE MEDIATOR of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.
  • 1 John 2:1 My little children, I write these things to you so that you may not sin. If anyone sins, we have a Counselor [Greek Parakleton: Counselor, Helper, Intercessor, Advocate, and Comforter.] with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous.
  • John 14:16-17 I will pray to the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, [Greek Parakleton: Counselor, Helper, Intercessor, Advocate, and Comforter.] that he may be with you forever,- the Spirit of truth, whom the world can’t receive; for it doesn’t see him, neither knows him. You know him, for he lives with you, and will be in you.
  • John 14:26 But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and will remind you of all that I said to you.
  • John 15:26 When the Counselor [Greek Parakletos: Counselor, Helper, Advocate, Intercessor, and Comforter.] has come, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will testify about me.
  • John 16:13 However when he, the Spirit of truth, has come, he will guide you into all truth, for he will not speak from himself; but whatever he hears, he will speak. He will declare to you things that are coming.
  • Romans 8:26 Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us[a] with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.

Learn to live from Mary! She asked you to obey and listen to her son Jesus! Focus on Jesus, not Mary

My own response to Gerry was as such:

Well, we do not speak of or teach a substitutional mediation in invoking the saints, as if we were trying to go to the Father apart from Jesus’ Mediation.

Rather we speak of a subordinate mediation when we seek the prayers of the saints, or of one another. For indeed we could have no communion with them or each other if it be not for Jesus Christ, who as the head of the Body the Church, unites all his members and facilitates our communion with each other.

You seem to speak of there being one mediator in an absolute sense, excluding any other possible interaction or any subordinate mediation. But Consider, that if there is only one mediator in the absolute sense you say, then you ought never again to ask ANYONE to pray for you. Neither should you attend any church, read any book, listen to any sermon or even read the Bible (since the Bible mediates Jesus words to you).

Now, a “mediator” is someone or something that acts as a kind of go-between, as something which acts to facilitate our relationship with Jesus. And though Jesus mediates our relationship to the Father, he also asked Apostles, preachers and teachers to mediate, to facilitate his relationship with us.

Thus Jesus sent apostles out to draw others to him. And St. Paul says, How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. (Rom 10:14-15, 17) And thus Jesus has his relationship with us mediated through his Word, and through the apostles and others who announce that Word and draw us to him.

But since you say there is absolutely only ONE mediator, and no subordinate or deputed mediators, there is therefore no need to ask ANYONE or ANYTHING to mediate. So burn your Bible, stop asking anyone to pray for you, seek no advice, NO ONE can mediate a single thing to you Gerry.  No one can do this because there is, as you say in an unqualified sense, absolutely only ONE mediator. ONE!

Further, it also seems to follow you must also cease and desist from trying mediate anything. For if no one can mediate anything of Jesus to you, than neither can you mediate anything to them, since as you say there is absolutely only ONE mediator.  No you cannot speak Jesus’ words or his will to others, because you are trying to mediate, you are acting as a kind of go-between, as someone who speaks God’s will to another. But Gerry, according to you there is only ONE mediator! Thus, How dare you try and get between Jesus and anyone else, there is ONE, absolutely only ONE mediator. Jesus doesn’t need you and you are violating the ONE mediator rule.

But as for me, I will go one praying for you and others because I see that there is a subordinated mediatorship in service of Christ’s supreme mediatorship. And just like the Bible can mediate his presence and will, or like a preacher can mediate his word, so too the prayers of others, including the Saints, can also convey my prayers to Him, and Jesus can mediate my prayers to the Father.

Consider the analogy of the Body, since the Church is Christ’s body. Jesus has one body and all the parts are connected through the Head, who is Jesus. Consider your own body. All the members of your body have communion and unity through your head, your mind. There are different ways to have interaction with others. Perhaps some one will reach you through your ears, by speaking, or by taping you on your shoulder, or visually by waving. And thus, various members of your body facilitate (mediate) interaction with others in different ways,  but it is all facilitated through the head of your body, your mind. So too do I confidently expect to reach Jesus in different ways, whether directly, or through one of his members, realizing that He himself facilitates it.

Regarding your thoughts on Mary: Since Jesus’ body is the Church, this makes Mary Mother of the Church, not just a symbol of it, as you call her. Since she is the Mother of Jesus and he is the head of the Body, the Church. It would be freakish to consider a mother giving birth to only the head of her child, but not the rest of his Body. So Mary is Mother of the Church. If she gave birth to the Head, she gave birth to the Body. Therefore Mary is Mother of the Church, which is the Body of Christ.

Further your instruction to follow Mary’s instruction to obey Jesus is a reference to her final recorded words: “Do whatever he tells you.” (Jn 2:5). I am not sure if you recall the context of this verse, but in saying this she had been interceding with Jesus on behalf of a couple at wedding where the wine ran short! She was acting as a mediator by communicating to Jesus their needs! And, When Jesus resists her request to make wine at first, she uses her motherly charm to overcome his resistance to such an extent that he is making gallons of wine!

Isn’t it ironic that you would pick a verse from Scripture to dismiss intercessory prayer which is actually a powerful example of that very practice?

But as for you Gerry, the consequence of your interpretation of absolutely and only ONE mediator, is that you must say nothing, hear nothing, interact with no one, depend on no one, and live in a closed “me and Jesus” circle. You must shut absolutely everyone and everything else out, including the Bible, for there is ONE MEDIATOR – no one, and nothing can mediate Jesus to you. There can be no go-betweens.

Well of course my answer to Gerry can use some improvements. You will add them. Also Catholic Answers has many wonderful resources. But the point here is that the Catholic practice of asking prayers of saints is attested not only Scripture, but also by common sense and the long practice of the faith.

How Can the Saints Hear Us? Because God is Able!

A common Evangelical protest against the Catholic practice of praying and interacting with the saints is that they “can’t hear us.” Those who disbelieve our practice often quote 1 Kings 8:39 which says, for you alone (O Lord) know the hearts of all men. Hence, according to this quote Saints, who are not God, cannot know our thoughts unless we speak them aloud.

This means, we must therefore speak them aloud. And this in turn ridiculed, or at least dismissed, by many Evangelicals who consider it absurd to think a saint way up in heaven would have adequate hearing to perceive us, way down here on earth talking to them. Further, even if they could hear us, how could they distinguish thousands or millions of people talking to them all at once? And so on, with these sorts of objections. To be fair, not every Evangelical shares all these objections nor do they always attempt to ridicule our practice. But objections and attitudes like this  are common enough to merit response.

The straight answer to the objections that saints cannot know our prayers due to lack of hearing, or inability to mind read, is set aside by Scripture itself which does speak of them as interacting with our prayers. More of this in a moment.

But some attention should also be paid to the highly naturalistic notions held by our critics, of the saints in heaven. To simply presume they “hear” in same way we do here on earth, or that their minds are operative in same way that ours are, or that they even experience time in the same serial way we do, are all highly questionable premises.

To begin with, the saints, through their more perfect union with Christ, ought not be presumed to experience their human faculties in exactly the same way as here on earth. Obviously their bodies have not yet risen, and hence they do not “hear” in the same manner as we do who still have bodies. Neither are their minds mediated through the physical brain as our is. Even when the trumpet shall sound and the bodies of the saints be restored to them, we need to understand that their humanity, body and soul, will be a glorified humanity. While we do not know all the aspects of a glorified humanity we will surely not have the forgetful and slow minds we have now. Neither ought we presume that our hearing will be limited as it is now.

So, to be clear, we ought not merely presume that the saints in heaven, even now, experience all the limits we do. They are caught up in Christ, and bound to Him more intimately and perfectly.

Secondly, the saints do not likely experience time like we do. Heaven is called, among other things in Scripture “eternity” or “eternal life.” Now eternity does not refer merely to the length of time or life, but also to the fulness of it. The fulness of time includes past, present and future, as one thing, in one moment. While we cannot be sure if the saints experience the “comprehensive now” as God does, we ought not presume that they experience time merely as we do either. Heaven is quite surely outside our earthly experience of time.

Hence, our understanding of heaven ought to include a mystical dimension and it is wrong to simply project our currently broken and fallen human condition on to the Saints in heaven or to presume them inside time exactly as we are.

Jesus rebukes the minimalists of his day – Regarding this tendency to make heavenly realities look either silly or untenable by projecting earthly categories there, Jesus had to rebuke the Sadducees of his day. They attempted to make heaven (which they rejected as a reality) look silly by projecting an earthly marriage scenario there of a woman who had seven husbands. Jesus said to them “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven (Mk 12:24-25). Thus, heaven is not like earth, and should not be reduced to it.  Nor are the souls in heaven presumed to be exactly the same as they are now.

Hence, to presume that Saints can hear us is not outlandish, for they are in Christ, and they are perfectly in communion with him in heaven. It is obviously Christ himself, then, who fosters our union with the Saints and their ability to remain in communion with us. For there is only one Body of Christ, and all the members are untied by the Head, who is Christ.

Now that the Saints do interact with us and present our prayers to God is stated in the Book of Revelation:

[T]he twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. (Rev 5:8)

Later we also see that the angels also collect the prayers of the saints:

Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne (Rev 8:3).

“Saints” here is used in the common first Century biblical sense as meaning those on earth who have accepted Christ (cf Eph 1:1; Phil 1:1; 2 Cor 9:1; Phil 1:5; Rom 16:2 and many,many more), not merely in the modern Catholic sense as only the canonized saints in heaven.

And thus, the image and teaching here is that the Holy Ones in heaven collect the prayers of the saints on earth and present them to God, like incense.

That these prayers have dramatic effects is illustrated in the verses that follow in Rev 8:

The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (Rev 8:4-5)

There follow seven trumpet blasts with confer God’s judgment and justice.

So the saints in heaven do hear us, they do collect our prayers and present them God and their intercession has powerful effects, the text from 1 Kings above, not withstanding.

Those who merely deny this based on some human notion of implausibility I would argue come under the Lord’s judgement: Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? (Mk 12:24). For though it may seem implausible to human minds, our God is able.  And he reveals in Scripture that he not only able to empower the heavenly saints and angels in this regard, he is also most willing.

Here is a very good and brief video on this by Tim Staples