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The Communion of Saints
by Allan Figueroa Deck, SJ, Ph.D., STD
One of the richest and most evocative doctrines of the Catholic Church is the Communion of Saints.
One of the richest and most evocative doctrines of the Catholic Church is the Communion of Saints.
This teaching refers to all the ways in which the Church itself is a communion.

The word communion expresses the way in which the Second Vatican Council understood the mystery of the Church—a communion that starts with the Sacraments themselves, especially the Holy Eucharist, and includes all people living and dead who are united in Christ and are leading or have led holy lives while awaiting their final glory with Christ forever in heaven.

In Christian tradition, the Communion of Saints is graphically communicated in Christian art and iconography. Think of the images in the stained glass windows of Chartres Cathedral or the sanctuaries of the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches where screens with images of the saints surround the altars. The Communion of Saints includes figures from the Old Testament such as Abraham, Moses, Miriam, Ruth, and the prophets as well as from the New Testament and beyond.

Human Relationships and Solidarity

This doctrine is especially important today because it speaks of God incarnate and the human person in terms of human relationships and solidarity. This contrasts with the strong individualism of modern culture.

By virtue of creation and especially Baptism, we are supremely connected, first to God himself and second to our many brothers and sisters. This understanding of Catholic identity has many implications, especially in how we think of and treat others, especially strangers, immigrants, and the poor.

The Communion of Saints provides an endless source of instruction and meaning for believers. The images, stories, and exploits of the saints nourish faith, hope, and charity by giving often imaginative and inspiring examples of how seemingly ordinary people can live lives of extraordinary commitment and holiness. The Bible is full of such stories and, to these, Catholics add a vast array of narratives regarding saints from every age, ethnicity, and race. Many people find appealing mediators like the Virgin Mary through whom they draw close to Christ himself.

Family and Community

The Communion of Saints is a feature of Catholic doctrine that appeals to Hispanics, Filipinos, and many other Catholic cultures. It connects perfectly to the Hispanic sense of family and community and African Catholics’ awareness of the world of the spirit, the notion that spirits exist beyond the appearances of death. As Africans, Asians, and Hispanics grow to become a majority in the Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints is gaining new and enthusiastic supporters.

For example, the Hispanic Day of the Dead or All Souls’ Day (November 2) continues to gain recognition throughout the United States. The native peoples of Mexico took the Christian memorial of the dead and grafted it onto their elaborate and joyous way of commemorating the dead.

In Spanish-speaking parishes, the altarcito or the “little altar” was where mementos of deceased loved ones were placed and adorned with flowers, photographs, and personal mementos. Such practices express the beauty and concreteness to faith. They make catechesis come alive with color, drama, and imagination.

Called Like the Saints

Stories about the saints are among the more influential ways catechists have to engage people’s cultures. Practices like the Day of the Dead or the Christmas Posadas and Lenten Viacrucis that ritualize stories have a broader and deeper appeal. The lives of the saints and the Church’s teaching on the Communion of Saints help people discover where God is in their human story and how they, too, are called like the saints to follow Christ.

Here are some suggestions on how to make the Communion of Saints come alive in your parish or school.

* Explore the moments in the Sacraments and everyday life when we talk about the saints, e.g., during the Creed or when a child is baptized.
* Find images of the saints in your community—in your parish church, in someone’s garden (look for St. Francis there!), or on a pendant or medal.
* Identify the unrecognized saints in your midst, especially the “others.” Decide the “saintly” thing to do for them—and do it.
* Read the stories of faith that begin each chapter of the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (from USCCB) to learn how to live out different aspect of Catholic life.

Allan Figueroa Deck, SJ, Ph.D., STD, is Executive Director Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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