“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1:24)
Every time we proclaim the Apostles’ Creed, that most ancient summary of the Christian Faith, we declare our belief in “the communion of saints“. But what does this doctrine mean?
The best nutshell definition was given by the Latin theologian Hugh of St. Victor centuries before Dumas of the romances: singula sint omnium et omnia singulorum, one for all and all for one! a phrase that surely befits the high adventure of Catholic truth. Among modern thinkers, one of the best explanations of the communion of saints was written by Karl Adam in his (we dare say) magisterial work from the 1920’s, The Spirit of Catholicism, which is online on EWTN.com. Thus does Adam, in chapter vii, summarize the ancient Christian teaching:
“By this doctrine… [is meant] a community of spirit and of spiritual goods among the saints on earth, that is among all those who are incorporated by faith and love in the one Head, Christ. More than that, she means also the vital communion of these faithful Christians with all those souls who have passed out of the world in the love of Christ, and who either as blessed souls enjoy in glory the Vision of their God, or as souls in the state of purgation await that Vision… the whole mass of the redeemed, who in the various stages of development, as members of the militant, suffering or triumphant Church, are conjoined through their one Head, Jesus Christ, in one single family and fellowship, in one single sacred Body.” (Adam, chapter vii)
As may be seen from the foregoing, the communion of saints is not limited to Christians who have entered the glory of heaven–some of whom the one true Church publicly proclaims, or canonizes, to be worthy of honor and emulation–but includes all the “holy ones” (Latin sancti) of God in heaven, on earth, and in purgatory, living in Christ and in one another, suffering together and being saved together, an ever-flowing, ever-interceding communion of love in which–
“no good can be done, no virtue practiced by individual members, which does not redound also to the salvation of all” (Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi, 89).
For in supernatural fact we are none of us isolated believers, lonely sinners “in the hands of an angry God” (pace Edwards). Rather, we are, by baptism into the body of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12-13), integral members of the one true Church. Each of us has a vital place in the Church and a vital role in each other’s transformation in Christ:
“[T]he members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:25-26)
Thus Adam, citing Scripture, explains that
“there is no grace that may be a purely personal possession, no blessing that does not belong to all. “If the foot should say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body: is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear should say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body: is it therefore not of the body?” (1 Cor. xii, 15-16). The ultimate meaning of every vital Christian function lies precisely in its close relation to the complete organism, in its solidarity with the whole.” (Adam, chapter vii).
“And so it may happen,” Adam continues, “that,
though for the external history of the Body of Christ the activities of the structural organs, the official activities of pope or bishop, may be more manifest to the eye, yet the joyful poverty of a St. Francis of Assisi, the vigils of a St. Ignatius of Loyola and the charity of a St. Vincent de Paul may claim greater importance for its inner history, for the realization of the fullness of Christ.” (Adam, chapter vii)
The key phrase was the last, “the fullness of Christ”. The expression comes from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians, where the Apostle declares that
“He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:22-23, KJV).
Hence, the Church is the fullness or completion (Greek pleroma) of Christ. His saving action is inseparable from that of His Body the Church, to Whom He joins Himself as Bridegroom to Bride; and as we are members of the Body of Christ, so we can, by His grace, complete His work of saving the world and each other:
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1:24).
For this reason, indeed, St. Paul teaches that human action in the Church plays a key role in all our salvation,
“For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12-13 KJV).
But isn’t this all pantheism? an Evangelical might object, as indeed many objected when Tony Campolo affirmed the strongly communitarian (non-individualist) tenor of Scriptural teaching on the unity of believers. We must answer that being of the Body of Christ does not make us essentially Divine, which is what pantheism means. Rather, we partake of the Divine nature (2 St. Peter 1:4) and become children of the Father not in ourselves but by participation, because we share in the life and mission of Christ our Divine Lord.
“There is but one God, the Triune God, and every created thing lives in awe of His mystery. But this one God is a God of life and of love. So great, so superabundant is this love, that it… by the precious gift of sanctifying grace, summons [man] from his state of isolation to an unparalleled participation in the Divine Nature and in Its blessings, to a sort of active co-operation in the work of God, to effective initiative in the establishment of the Kingdom of God.” (Adam, chapter vii)
“The creature”, continues Adam, “remains always a creature and can co-operate in the work of salvation only through God’s power”, but–
“looking at the matter as a whole, the true Kingdom, whence comes all blessing, is not God alone, not the divine “One” (hen) alone, but the “One and all” (hen kai pan) or rather the totality of all the members whom Christ, their Head, introduces into the Divine Life of God, who is fruitful in His saints.” (Adam, chapter vii)
This is not absorption into God, nor mere imputation of justice to purely passive humanity, but grace-generated transformation in Christ with our active, free, grace-generated participation:
“[W]ork out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you” (Philippians 2:12-13 KJV).
This, says Adam, is the main difference between Protestantism and the Christian Faith of one true Church. Protestantism pays lip-service to the Incarnation, yet continues to imagine the Lord our God as a totally transcendent deity, Who saves us without any participation by the human nature that Christ made one with His Divine Person. But in response to the atomizing Protestant principle (the child of Nominalism’s union with St. Augustine’s residual Manicheanism) that we must not “absolutize” what is merely earthly, we affirm that human beings in all their weakness are, by grace, necessary co-participants in Christ’s saving work, because in Him the Word was made flesh (St. John 1:14), our flesh. Therefore, Adam notes,
“The Catholic cannot think of the good God without thinking at the same time of the Word made Flesh, and of all His members who are united to Him by faith and love in a real unity. The God of Catholicism is the transcendent, absolute God, who became Man for us in His Son, and therefore no solitary God, but the God of angels and saints, the God of fruitfulness and abundance, the God who with a veritable divine folly by the incomprehensible decree of His most free Will takes up into Himself the whole creation that culminates in human nature, and in a new, unheard of supernatural manner, “lives in it,” “moves” in it, and in it “is” (cf. Acts xvii, 28)” (Adam, chapter vii)
We are the communion of saints, a consecrated people joined to the Church, the fullness of Christ, by baptism, the Eucharist (see St. John 6:53-56) and all her other sacramental actions, as well as her teaching (see 1 St. Timothy 3:15), guidance, and prayer. By thus joining us to His ecclesial Person, Christ joins us to the Father Who begets Him in eternity and the Spirit Who proceeds from the Father and Christ in eternity; and also to the Mother and the People that begot him in time, to His relatives and friends in 1st century Palestine, to the saintly and sinful laity, rulers, nuns, priests, bishops, popes Who became members of His Body over 2,000 years of very chequered and very sacred history.
“For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us…” (Romans 12:3-6 KJV)
The holiness of any one of us benefits all, and the sin of any member harms all (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:25-26), for we are joined to one another, as we are all joined to Christ. We believe in the communion of saints!
(All rights reserved. Reprinted from our 3 November 2009 post, with minor modifications, in honor of the beatification of Blessed John Paul II, Bishop of Rome. All quotations from The Spirit of Catholicism are taken from the online edition published on EWTN.com, copyright 1954 by Doubleday & Company, Inc. All quotations from the King James Version are taken from the Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. We believe that our reproduction of non-substantial portions of the works for non-profit purposes constitutes fair use; but if we are mistaken, we stand ready to remove all objectionable content upon request. Deus vobiscum.)