The “communion of saints”1 is an orthodox belief explicitly mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy, catholic church, the communion of saints, the remission of sins, the resurrection of the body, and eternal life.
Credo in Spiritum Sanctum, sanctam Ecclesiam catholicam, sanctorum communionem, remissionem peccatorum, carnis resurrectionem, vitam aeternam.
The communion of saints is the Church,4 a “visible congregation and spiritual community”5 comprised of the saints in the Church militant6 on earth, the saints in the Church penitent or suffering7 enduring purgatory, and the saints in the Church triumphant8 in heaven.
Although the saints are physically separated in this world,9 they are spiritually united to one another by the Holy Spirit, for “we all are baptized by one Spirit into one body,”10 and “he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit.”11
Of this one body, “the body of Christ,”12 the Lord Jesus Christ is “the head,”13 and Christians are “individual members”14 “of his body, of his flesh and of his bones,”15 even “members of one another.”16
The apostle Paul wrote,17
25 There should be no schism in the body, but the members should care the same for one another. 26 And whether one member suffers, all the members suffer together. Whether one member is honored, all the members rejoice together.
What affects one Christian, whether beneficially or detrimentally, affects all Christians, since all Christians are spiritually united as members of the body of Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ said, “In so far as you did it to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.”18 Also, “In so far as you did not do it to one of the least of these [brothers of mine], you did not do it to me.”19
Prior to his conversion, Saul (later known as the apostle Paul) persecuted Christians.20 On the road to Damascus, the Lord Jesus Christ spoke to Saul, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”21 By persecuting individual Christians, Saul also persecuted the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the head of the Church, his own body.
By virtue of their spiritual union with the Lord Jesus Christ, all Christians, those who are “in Christ,” are accounted as participating in the events of the life of Christ himself. They:
The Lord Jesus Christ is Israel,33 named after the patriarch Israel just as he is elsewhere named after the patriarch David.34 Since Christians “are the body of Christ,”35 then they too are Israel—not “Israel according to the flesh,”36 but Israel according to the spirit, “the Israel of God,”37 for “not all these who are of Israel”—that is, physically descended from the patriarch Israel (Jacob)—“are Israel”38—that is, the Israel of God, for “the children of the promise are accounted for seed.”39
St. Justin Martyr wrote,40
For the true spiritual Israelite [race] and offspring of Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham (who in uncircumcision was witnessed and blessed by God on account of his faith, and called the father of many nations) are we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ…
Therefore, just as Christ is “Israel” and “Jacob,” likewise we, who have been quarried out of the bowels of Christ, are the true Israelite offspring…
…even so it is necessary for us here to apprehend that there are two seeds of Judah, and two offspring, as there are two houses of Jacob: the one begotten by blood and flesh, the other begotten by faith and the Spirit.
The Lord Jesus Christ is the Temple of God42 in whom dwells the fullness of deity.43 As members of the body of Christ, Christians are “living stones”44 that are built together “in the Lord”45 into a “spiritual house,”46 “a holy Temple,”47 and “a habitation of God.”48 Similarly, each individual Christian is a temple of God in whom God the Holy Spirit dwells.49
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states,50
“Since all the faithful are one body, the good of one [member] is communicated to the other [members]. Wherefore, among other beliefs, there is [the belief] that a communication of goods exists in the Church. The principal member is Christ, since he is the head. Therefore, the goods of Christ are communicated to all the members, and this communication is through the sacraments of the Church.”51 “In fact, the Holy Spirit, by whom that [Church] is governed, works so that whatever [goods] are gathered in it are common.”52
Just as Jude refers to the “common salvation,”53 and the apostle Paul refers to the “common faith,”54 the primitive Church were all “together and had everything common.”55 Invested “with love, which is the bond of perfectness,”56 and “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,”57 they were “of one heart and of one soul,”58 “thinking the same, having the same love, unanimous, thinking one thing,”59 and “contending together in one spirit, in one soul, in the faith of the gospel.”60
The unity of the Church is realized, among other things, in the sacraments. By the sacrament of baptism, Christians are “baptized into one body”61—“into Jesus Christ.”62 By the sacrament of confirmation, Christians receive the Holy Spirit,63 by which they are all baptized into one body, for “he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit.”64 By the sacrament of the Eucharist, Christians are “one bread, one body, for we are all partakers of that one bread.”65 By the sacrament of penance, we confess our sins, and “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”66 “...if we walk in the light, and he is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of His Son Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin.”67 By the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, “...the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him, and if he committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.”68 By the sacrament of holy orders, bishops lay hands upon their successors, who ultimately lay hands upon the laity and confer the Holy Spirit during the sacrament of confirmation. By the sacrament of marriage, a man and woman become one flesh, which exemplifies the unity of the Lord Jesus Christ and his bride, the Church.69
The apostle Paul wrote Timothy,70
1 “Therefore, first of all, I encourage supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men… 3 for this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our savior.”
Because Christians “care the same for another,”71 they pray and intercede to God for one another. The apostle Paul and his fellows asked fellow Christians to pray for them: “Brothers, pray for us!”72 In reciprocation, the apostle Paul and his fellows also prayed for fellow Christians: “…we always pray for you…”73
The intercession and prayer of saints for one another does not only involve those of the Church militant on earth. The apostle Paul also prayed for those Christians who had departed this life, such as Onesiphorus:74
18 “May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day…”
The book of 2 Maccabees explicitly mentions prayer for the dead:75
44 For if he was not expecting those who had fallen to resurrect, it would have been superfluous and silly to pray for the dead. 45 But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore, he made atonement for the dead to be delivered of [their] sin.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states,76
“Knowing foremost this communion of the whole mystical body of Jesus Christ, since the primeval days of the Christian religion, the Church of pilgrims has honored with great devotion the memory of the dead…”77 Our prayer for them is not only able to benefit them, but also to make their intercession for us effective.
In addition, Christians of the Church militant on earth request the intercession and prayer of those Christians in the Church triumphant in heaven. Indeed, the catacombs of Rome were replete with epigraphs invoking departed Christians in heaven to pray for their surviving family and friends on earth.
James Spencer Northcote wrote,78
They asked for the departed soul peace, and light, and refreshment, and rest in God and in Christ. Sometimes also they invoked the help of his prayers (since they knew that he still lived in God) for the surviving relatives whose times of trial was not yet ended. In a word, they realised most intensely that all the faithful, whether in the body or out of the body, were still living members of one mystical body, the body of Christ; that they formed one great family, knit together in the closest bonds of love; and that this love, “stronger than death,” had its proper work and happiness in prayer—prayer of the survivors for those who had gone before, prayer of the blessed for those who were left behind.
While the bodies of those who have departed this life have died and are buried in the grave, their spirits, “the spirits of just men perfected,”79 live in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in heaven, “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.”80 Indeed, Yahveh “is not God of the dead, but of the living.”81 These departed spirits also comprise “such a great cloud of witnesses,”82 that is, spectators, who encompass Christians on earth. As spectators and witnesses, they are cognizant of the needs of those Christians living on earth and able to intercede on their behalf to God.83 For this reason, Christians of the Church militant on earth invoke them to intercede to God on their behalf.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states,84
“Because the heavenly [Christians] are more intimately united with Christ, they more firmly consolidate the whole Church in holiness. They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us while conferring the merits which were acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus. Therefore, our weakness is greatly benefited by their fraternal solicitude.”85
Aquinas, Thomas. Expositio in Symbolum Apostolorum (“Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed”).
Catechismus ex Decreto Concilii Tridentini ad Parochos. Leipzig: Tauchnitz, 1856.
Devine, Arthur. The Creed Explained, or, An Exposition of Catholic Doctrine according to the Creeds of Faith and the Constitutions and Definitions of the Church. London: Washbourne, 1897. (358–367)
Northcote, James Spencer. Epitaphs of the Catacombs: or, Christian Inscriptions in Rome during the First Four Centuries. London: Longmans, 1891.
S. Nicetas. “Explanatio Symboli.” Patrologiæ Cursus Completus: Series Prima. Ed. Migne, Jacques Paul. Vol. 52. Petit-Montrouge: Imprimerie Catholique, 1845.
1 Latin communio sanctorum; Greek ἡ κοινωνία τῶν ἁγίων
2 Latin communitas sanctorum, where sanctorum is understood as declined in the masculine gender.
3 Latin communicatio sanctorum, where sanctorum is understood as declined in the neuter gender.
4 S. Nicetas of Remesiana. Explanatio Symboli. p. 871, §10: Ecclesia quid aliud, quam sanctorum omnium congregatio? (“What else is the Church, but the congregation of all the saints?)
5 Latin cœtus adspectabilis et communitas spiritualis; Pope Paul VI. Lumen Gentium, Ch. 1, §8.
6 Latin ecclesia militans; Greek ἡ στρατευομένη ἐκκλησία
7 Latin ecclesia patiens; Greek ἡ πάσχουσα ἐκκλησία
8 Latin ecclesia triumphans; Greek ἡ θριαμβεύουσα ἐκκλησία
9 1 Cor. 5:3
10 1 Cor. 12:13
11 1 Cor. 6:17
12 1 Cor. 12:27
13 Col. 1:18
14 1 Cor. 12:27. In this context, the Greek noun μέρος refers to a body part.
15 Eph. 5:30
16 Eph. 4:25
17 1 Cor. 12:25–26
18 Matt. 25:40
19 Matt. 25:41
20 cp. 1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13, 1:23; Phil. 3:6
21 Acts 9:4
22 Rom. 6:6; Gal. 2:20
23 Rom. 8:17
24 2 Tim. 2:11
25 Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12
26 Eph. 2:6; Col. 2:12, 3:1
27 Eph. 2:5; Col. 2:13
28 Rom. 6:8; 2 Tim. 2:11
29 Rom. 8:17
30 Eph. 2:6
31 2 Tim. 2:12
32 Rom. 8:17
33 Luke 2:32 cp. Isa. 49:3, 49:6; Matt. 2:15 cp. Exo. 4:22; Hos. 11:1
34 cp. Jer. 30:9; Eze. 34:23, 37:24
35 1 Cor. 12:27
36 1 Cor. 10:18. The mention of an “Israel according to the flesh” (ὁ Ἰσραὴλ κατὰ σάρκα) rather than simply “Israel” implies the existence of an “Israel according to the spirit” (ὁ Ἰσραὴλ κατὰ πνεῦμα); cp. Rom. 1:3–4 where «κατὰ σάρκα» is contrasted with «κατὰ πνεῦμα». St. John Chrysostom in Homily on 1 Cor. 10:18: “And he says well, ‘according to the flesh,’ as though they themselves [i.e., Christians] were according to the Spirit.”
37 Gal. 6:16
38 Rom. 9:6
39 Rom. 9:8
40 Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Ch. 11
41 idem, Ch. 135
42 John 2:21
43 Col. 2:9
44 1 Pet. 2:5
45 Eph. 2:21
46 1 Pet. 2:5
47 Eph. 2:21
48 Eph. 2:22
49 1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16 cp. 1 Cor. 6:19
50 CCC, §947
51 Aquinas, Thomas. Expositio in Symbolum Apostolorum (“Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed”), §10
52 Catechismus ex Decreto Concilii Tridentini (“Catechism by the Decree of the Tridentine Council”), Part 1, Ch. 10, Question 24
53 Jude 1:3
54 Tit. 1:4
55 Acts 2:44
56 Col. 3:14 cp. Col. 3:12
57 Eph. 3:4
58 Acts 4:32
59 Phil. 2:2
60 Phil. 1:27
61 1 Cor. 12:13
62 Rom. 6:3
63 Acts 8:14-17
64 1 Cor. 6:17
65 1 Cor. 10:17
66 1 John 1:9
67 1 John 1:7
68 Jam. 5:15
69 Eph. 5:31–32
70 1 Tim. 2:1, 2:3
71 1 Cor. 12:25
72 1 Thes. 5:25; 2 Thes. 3:1
73 2 Thes. 1:11
74 2 Tim. 1:18
75 2 Macc. 12:44–45
76 CCC, §958
77 Lumen Gentium, 50
78 p. 76
79 Heb. 12:23
81 Matt. 22:32 cp. Mark 12:27; Luke 20:38
82 Heb. 12:1: «τοσοῦτον…νέφος μαρτύρων ὄγκον»
83 cp. Luke 16:27-28. The rich man being tormented in Hades interceded for his brothers on earth.
84 CCC, §956
85 Lumen Gentium, 49; cp. 1 Tim 2:5