Classic Reflections on the Communion of Saints

Classic Reflections on the Communion of Saints July 29, 2018

The following material is from the first draft of my book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism (1994). It ran about 750 pages and contained many citations (along the lines of Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict). I revised the whole thing in 1996, incorporating citations from the new Catechism and omitting much material (particularly early Protestant history). I think the revision makes for a much better book, yet what was deleted is not, I think, without value and usefulness. Protestant quotations will be in blue color.

The Communion of Saints 

I. INTRODUCTION / DEFINITIONS 

John A. Hardon, S. J. 

The unity and cooperation of the members of the Church on earth with those in heaven and in purgatory. They are united as being one Mystical Body of Christ. The faithful on earth . . . are in communion with the saints in heaven by honoring them as glorified members of the Church, invoking their prayers and aid, and striving to imitate their virtues. They are in communion with the souls in purgatory by helping them with their prayers and good works . . . Venerating the saints does not detract from the glory given to God, since whatever they possess is a gift from his bounty . . . They reflect the divine perfections, and their supernatural qualities result from the graces Christ merited for them by the Cross. (Pocket Catholic Dictionary, New York: Doubleday Image, 1980, 448)

The Church founded by Christ has three levels of existence. She is the Church Militant on earth, the Church Suffering in purgatory, and the Church Triumphant in heaven . . . There is communication among these three levels of the Mystical Body. Those on earth invoke the saints in heaven and pray for the souls in purgatory. Those in heaven pray for the Church Militant and the Church Suffering; they obtain graces for us on earth and an alleviation of suffering for the poor souls. Those in purgatory can invoke the saints on high and pray for us struggling with the world, the flesh, and the evil spirit. (Pocket Catholic Catechism, New York: Doubleday Image, 1989, 90-91)

Revelation 5:8 and 8:3-4

. . . The four beasts and the four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of the saints.

And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.

Ludwig Ott 

The angels and the saints lay the prayers of the holy on earth at the feet of God, that is, they support them with their intercession . . . The propriety of invoking them logically follows from the fact of their intercession. (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books, 1974, 318)

Revelation 6:9-10 

. . . I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?

New Bible Commentary  

This incident forms an integral part of the last judgments on earth, for the prayer for vengeance (v.10) is answered, and the end thereby hastened; see 8:1-5. (D. Guthrie, & J. A. Motyer, editors, The New Bible Commentary, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 3rd edition, 1970; reprinted in 1987 as The Eerdmans Bible Commentary, 1289)

This admission by a well-known Protestant commentary is of immense significance. For if the prayers of dead saints have such an importance regarding the end of the age on earth and the final judgment, who can estimate how weighty such prayers are for less earth-shattering matters (excuse the pun!)? The doctrine of communion of saints, then, would appear to be irrefutably presented in Revelation.

Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary

The elect (not only on earth, but under Christ’s covering, and in His presence in Paradise) cry day and night to God, . . . pray . . . to their Head . . . who will assuredly, in His own time, avenge His and their cause. (Robert Jamieson, Andrew R. Fausset,  & David Brown, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1961 [orig. 1864], 1547, 846. Fausset & Brown were Anglicans, Brown Presbyterian) [cf. Zech 1:12]

Luke 15:10 

. . . There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth. (cf. 15:7)

James Cardinal Gibbons 

The angels are glad whenever you repent of your sins. Now, what is repentance? It is a change of heart. It is an interior operation of the will. The saints, therefore, are acquainted – we know not how – not only with your actions and words, but even with your very thoughts. (The Faith of Our Fathers, New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, revised edition of 1917, 127)

Charles Hodge

Hodge, perhaps the leading evangelical (Presbyterian) theologian of the 19th century, agrees with Cardinal Gibbons about the knowledge of angels:

In their intellectual faculties and in the extent of their knowledge they are far superior to man. Their power also is very great and extends over mind and matter. They have the power to communicate with one another and with other minds and to produce effects in the natural world . . . 

The angels not only execute the will of God in the natural world, but also act on the minds of men. They have access to our minds and can influence them for good . . ., by the suggestion of truth and guidance of thought and feeling, much as one man may act upon another. If the angels may communicate one with another, there is no reason why they may not, in like manner, communicate with our spirits. In the Scriptures, therefore, the angels are represented as not only affording general guidance and protection, but also as giving inward strength and consolation. (Systematic Theology, abridged one-volume edition by Edward N. Gross, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1988 [orig. 1873, 3 volumes], 231-233)

1 Corinthians 4:9 

. . . we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men.

James Cardinal Gibbons 

What does he mean, unless that as our actions are seen by men even so they are visible to the angels in heaven? . . . Our Lord declares that the saints in heaven shall be like the angelic spirits, by possessing the same knowledge, enjoying the same happiness (Matthew 22:30). (Gibbons, ibid., 127)

Matthew 18:10 

Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the
face of my Father which is in heaven.

Adam Clarke

Our Lord here not only alludes to, but in my opinion establishes, the notion received by almost all nations, viz., that every person has a guardian angel; and that these have always access to God, to receive orders relative to the management of their charge. See Psalm 34:7; Hebrews 1:14. (Commentary on the Bible, abridged one-volume edition by Ralph Earle, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1967 [orig. 1832, 8 volumes], 805. Clarke was a Methodist)

New Bible Commentary  

Every believer may have been thought to have a guardian angel with access to God to report on his charge (cf. Psalm 91:11; Acts 12:15). (Guthrie, ibid., 839)

If Jesus taught that He could have asked for the assistance of angels (Matthew 26:53) — and He certainly would not have been worshiping them in so doing — then we, who obviously need their help far more than the Lord Jesus Christ, can do the same without necessarily engaging in idolatry (after all, anything can become an idol if we let it).

It stands to reason that if angels are so aware of our doings and even thoughts, as indicated in Luke 15:10 and 1 Corinthians 4:9, then they certainly would be cognizant of our pleas to them. Protestants can only deny this by maintaining that such requests are synonymous with either the worship of God or the communication with evil spirits by means of a medium or other occultic practice. This is nonsense.

The Catholic Church, so its detractors claim, is guilty of “adding to the faith.” Even if this were true, would it be any worse than Protestantism’s tragic “shrinking” of Christianity down to a minimalistic, “lowest common denominator” type of belief-system? The present subject is a case-in-point, illustrating the bankruptcy of the truncated forms of Christianity existing within Protestantism, when it comes to so many avenues of grace which are either obliterated or ignored.

Matthew 17:1-3

 . . . Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart, And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him. (cf. Mk 9:4 and Lk 9:30-31)

Patrick Madrid 

If Jesus didn’t want any contact between saints on earth (as Paul anticipatorily calls Christians) and saints in heaven, why did our Lord make a special point of appearing to Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration in the company of Moses and Elijah, two `dead’ saints? (“Any Friend of God’s is a Friend of Mine,” This Rock, September 1992, cover, 7-13; quote from p. 13)

New Bible Commentary

The following excerpt illustrates well the Protestant uneasiness and bewilderment as to what this passage might imply (for the communion of saints):

Hypotheses advanced in explanation of the phenomena of this event differ widely, ranging from those which attribute no more than a legendary or symbolic value to the story, or explain it as a resurrection story read back into the earthly life of Jesus, to the other extreme of the spiritualists who claim it as a seance. In reply to the latter it may be pointed out that there was no communication from Moses and Elijah to the disciples, and the subject of discussion was the cross (Lk 9:31), not usually a topic at seances! (Guthrie, ibid., 869-870)

George Haydock 

It is hence evident, that the saints departed can and do, with the permission of God, take an interest in the affairs of the living . . . For as angels elsewhere, so here the saints also, served our Saviour; and as angels, both in the Old and New Testament, were frequently present at the affairs of men, so may saints. (Haydock’s Catholic Family Bible and Commentary, New York: Edward Dunigan & Brother, 1859 / Reprinted: Monrovia, California: Catholic Treasures, 1991, 1283)

Revelation 11:3

And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy . . . (Read Rev 11:3-13)

Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary 

The actions of the two witnesses are just those of Moses when witnessing for God against Pharaoh . . . ; and of Elijah . . . De Burgh thinks Elijah and Moses will again appear, as Malachi 4:5-6 seems to imply (cf. Matt 17:11; Acts 3:21). Moses and Elijah appeared with Christ at the Transfiguration . . . As to Moses, cf. Deuteronomy 34:5-6; Jude 9 . . . Many of the early Church thought the two witnesses to be Enoch and Elijah (3). This would avoid the difficulty of the dying a second time, for these never have died [Gen 5:24; 2 Ki 2:11] . . . Still, the turning the water to blood, and the plagues (vs. 6), apply best to Moses. (Jamieson, ibid., 1556-1557)

Wycliffe Bible Commentary

Who are these two witnesses? . . . I think these witnesses must be regarded as individuals. Many assert that they are Moses and Elijah . . ., others that they are Enoch and Elijah. (Charles F. Pfeiffer & Everett F. Harrison, editors, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Chicago: Moody Press, 1962, 1510)

1 Samuel 28:12, 14-15 

And when the woman saw Samuel [who was dead], she cried . . . And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he stooped his face to the ground, and bowed himself. . . . And Samuel said to Saul, Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up? . . . (Read verses 7-20)

Some commentators have denied that this was actually Samuel, thinking that “Samuel” in this passage was an impersonating spirit of some sort, conjured up by the medium (“the witch of Endor”). The current consensus, however, appears to be that it was indeed Samuel the prophet, in an appearance after his death:

New Bible Commentary 

The narrative strongly suggests that this really was Samuel, and not a mere apparition or hallucination. The foreknowledge and uncompromising statements attributed to him in the verses that follow also stamp him as being genuinely Samuel. (Guthrie, ibid., 301)

Wycliffe Bible Commentary

The more modern orthodox commentators are almost unanimous in the opinion that the departed prophet did really appear and announce the coming destruction of Saul and his army. They hold, however, that Samuel was brought up not by the magical arts of the witch, but through a miracle wrought by the omnipotence of God . . . 

That the spirit of Samuel actually appeared was the view of the ancient rabbis. This is attested in the LXX translation of 1 Chr 10:13b – `And Samuel the prophet made answer to him’; and by Ecclesiasticus 46:20. The same view was held by Justin Martyr, Origen, and Augustine. Tertullian and Jerome maintained that the appearance of Samuel was a diabolical delusion. (Pfeiffer, ibid., 292)

Ecclesiasticus 46:13, 20 (KJV) reads: “Samuel . . . after his death . . . prophesied, and shewed the king his end, and lifted up his voice from the earth in prophecy, to blot out the wickedness of the people.” Jeremiah also reappears on earth: 2 Maccabees 15:13-16.

Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary

The story has led to much discussion whether there was a real appearance of Samuel or not . . . Many eminent writers (considering that the apparition came before her arts were put into practice; that she herself was surprised and alarmed; that the prediction of Saul’s own death and the defeat of his forces was confidently made), are of the opinion that Samuel really appeared. (Jamieson, ibid., 226-227)

Matthew 27: 50, 52-53 

Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost . . . And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose. And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.

REASONED DEFENSES OF THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS 

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman 

The Catholic Church allows no . . . Saint, not even the Blessed Virgin herself, to come between the soul and its Creator . . . The devotions then to angels and saints as little interfered with the incommunicable glory of the Eternal, as the love which we bear our friends and relations, our tender human sympathies, are inconsistent with that supreme homage of the heart to the Unseen. (Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1956 [orig. 1864], 284-285)

Ronald Knox 

The great ones of the world live, indeed, in memory; public statues have set their features permanently on record . . . But their memory fades, when their generation has died . . . the man has become an idea. It is not so that the saints live; we conceive them . . . as personally intimate with us, as exercising a real influence, not as the source of a mental inspiration. (The Belief of Catholics, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1927, 179)

James Cardinal Gibbons 

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 Communion of Saints robs death of its terrors, while the Reformers . . . not only inflicted a deadly wound on the Creed (4), but also severed the tenderest chords of the human heart . . . the holy ties that unite earth with heaven . . . If my brother . . . crosses the narrow sea of death and lands on the shore of eternity, why should he not pray for me still? What does death destroy? The body. The soul still lives and . . . thinks and wills and remembers and loves . . .

A heart tenderly attached to the saints will give vent to its feelings in the language of hyperbole, just as an enthusiastic lover will call his future bride his adorable queen, without any intention of worshipping her as a goddess. (Gibbons, ibid., 131, 13)

Karl Adam 

God . . . takes up into Himself the whole creation that culminates in human nature, and in a new, unheardof supernatural manner, “lives in it,” “moves” in it, and in it “is” (cf. Acts 17:28). That is the basis upon which the Catholic veneration of the saints and Mary must be judged . . . The saints are not mere exalted patterns of behavior, but living members and even constructive powers of the Body of Christ . . .

The veneration which we give to angels and saints is essentially different from the worship which we offer to God . . . To God alone belongs the complete service of the whole man, the worship of adoration . . . But so pervasive . . . is God’s glory that it . . . is reflected also in those who in Him have become children of God . . . We love them as countless dewdrops in which the sun’s radiance is mirrored. We venerate them because we find God in them . . . Therefore are we confident that they can and will help us only so far as creatures may. They cannot themselves sanctify us . . .

The divine blessing never works without the members, but only in and through their unity . . . Therefore, although the veneration of saints has undergone some development in the course of the Church’s history . . . yet such veneration was from the beginning germinally contained in the nature of the Church as the Body of Christ . . . the fellowship and solidarity of His members . . . It is no pagan growth, but indigenous to Christianity . . . Popular devotion to the saints is in line with dogma and is utterly monotheistic in character . . . The devout Catholic . . . for the ordinary and fundamental concerns of his soul . . . practises . . . an immediate intercourse of prayer with God. (The Spirit of Catholicism, translated by Justin McCann; revised edition, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1954 [orig. 1924], 115-116, 123-125, 246)

A sound biblical basis for the veneration of saints can be found in the Pauline passages where the Apostle exhorts his followers to “imitate” him (1 Cor 4:16; Phil 3:17; 2 Thess 3:7-9) as he, in turn, imitates Christ (1 Cor 11:1 & 1 Thess 1:6). Also, we are exhorted to honor and imitate the “heroes of the faith” in Hebrews 6:12 & ch.11, and to take heart in the examples of the prophets and Job, who endured suffering (Jas 5:10-11).

Nicholas Russo 

Our opponents should prove that, however subordinate are the honors we bestow upon the saints, they necessarily conflict with the honor . . . we are bound to render to God. But this . . . would prove too much; for if subordinate and supreme honors conflict, subordinate and supreme love would conflict likewise . . . The love we give to relatives and friends would necessarily detract from the love due to God. But this is necessarily false . . . Could we call him an idolater who should celebrate in song the flowers of the fields, the stars of the firmament, the majesty of the ocean? . . . Assuredly not; and why? Because it is God Himself we praise in admiring His works. (The True Religion, New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, 1886, 261-262)

Thomas Howard

I had never heard the idea, taught in the Church for centuries, that in the act of Christian worship the scrim that hangs between earth and heaven is drawn back, and we in very truth join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven . . . It is an awesome picture of things . . . Evangelicalism had instilled in me a robust supernaturalism . . . It was, rather, that no one had ever bothered to open up this vision . . . a notion that would be theoretically affirmed by evangelicalism but which is not often dwelt on and is certainly not vivified in public worship . . . The host of apostles, evangelists, fathers, martyrs, confessors, doctors . . . was not really very present to us . . .

Their roots in history have been pulled up, and they are left with nothing but the Bible and the modern world. They forget that the Faith has been borne on human shoulders and in human hearts for 2000 years . . . Evangelical doctrine is correct, but there are immense treasures that it seldom dips into for the sake of its people. (Evangelical is Not Enough, Nashville: Nelson, 1984, 57-59)

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) 

God shows to men, in a vivid way, his presence and his face in the lives of those companions of ours in the human condition who are more perfectly transformed into the image of Christ (cf. 2 Cor 3:18) . . . Exactly as Christian communion between men on their earthly pilgrimage brings us closer to Christ, from whom as from its fountain and head issues all grace . . . every authentic witness of love, indeed, offered by us to those who are in heaven tends to and terminates in Christ, “the crown of all the saints,” and through him in God who is wonderful in his saints and is glorified in them. (Dogmatic Constitution On The Church, Lumen Gentium, chapter 7, “The Pilgrim Church”)

A. W. Tozer 

Tozer, the much-beloved Christian writer and pastor of the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination, though denying the invocation of saints, writes luminously of the Mystical Unity of the Body of Christ:

In the Body of Christ the quickening Spirit flowing through every part gives life and unity to the whole. Our Christian brethren who have gone from our sight retain still their place in the universal fellowship. The Church is one . . . I suggest also that we try to acquaint ourselves as far as possible with the good and saintly souls who lived before our times and now belong to the company of the redeemed in heaven . . . I have no doubt that the prayerful reading of some of the great spiritual classics of the centuries would destroy in us forever that constriction of soul which seems to be the earmark of modern evangelicalism . . . Who is able to complete the roster of the saints? To them we owe a debt of gratitude too great to comprehend . . . They belong to us, all of them, and we belong to them. They and we . . . are included in the universal fellowship of Christ, and together compose “a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people,” who enjoy a common but blessed communion of saints. (A Treasury of A.W. Tozer, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1980, 168-170, “The Communion of Saints”)

Alan Schreck / C. S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis vividly described how God might see all of his people as one vast, united family . . . In his book, The Screwtape Letters, Lewis has the demon Screwtape explain to a junior demon how Satan is aided by the narrow view of the church held by many Christians:

One of our great allies at present is the church itself . . . I do not mean the church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle that makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. . . .

One of Satan’s chief strategies to defeat the church is to divide and isolate its members from one another and thus deprive them of the strength they can receive from their fellow members of the communion of saints. (Catholic and Christian, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant Books, 1984, 153-154. Lewis quote: New York: Macmillan, reprinted in 1961, 12)

C. S. Lewis 

Lewis wrote very ecumenically on this topic in one of his last books, from which we will agreeably quote, in conclusion:

. . . devotions to saints . . . There is clearly a theological defence for it; if you can ask for the prayers of the living, why should you not ask for the prayers of the dead? . . . I am not thinking of adopting the practice myself; and who am I to judge the practices of others? . . . The consoling thing is that while Christendom is divided about the rationality and even the lawfulness, of praying to the saints, we are all agreed about praying with them. `With angels and archangels and all the company of heaven’ . . . You may say that the distinction between the communion of the saints as I find it in that act and full-fledged prayer to saints is not, after all, very great. All the better if so. I sometimes have a bright dream of reunion engulfing us unawares, like a great wave from behind our backs . . . Discussions usually separate us; actions sometimes unite us. (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly On Prayer, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964, 15-16)

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(originally 2-17-91; revised and expanded version: 12-14-93)

Photo credit: Landauer Altar (1511), by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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