The last installment on the four marks of the Church described more specifically four key characteristics of “who” the Church is: that she is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. In this installment, we consider a particular aspect of the unity or “oneness” of the Church – that she is a “communion of saints” in union with God. As we will see, membership in this communion of saints is quite broad – and at the same time, it speaks to a particular state of living in relationship to God to which we have all been called and must not take for granted.
First, in considering the word “communion,” we can think of this word as the combining of the two words “common” and “union,” implying a unity that exists between multiple persons with each person remaining distinct. God Himself is the example of perfect communion in His interior life in the Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct persons in one Trinity that is perfectly united as one being or substance. It is within this perfect communion of the Trinity that God likewise wills for all his children to dwell eternally, with each one of us individually being who we were made to be within that union. To be of the communion of saints, then, is to be among all who partake of the fullness of the union within the Triune God, each as proper members of the body.
What then ought we make of the word “saints” within this expression “communion of saints?” Frequently (and correctly) we use the word “saint” as a description of a holy person – most often one whom we recognize as having died and who is already in heaven with God. Here, however, in speaking of the communion of saints, the word saint implies far more than the holy ones who are already in heaven (and who have been officially recognized to be so through the process of “canonization”). In paragraph 962 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the communion of saints is said to be comprised of “all the faithful of Christ,” which includes persons in three distinct states in life: 1 - the baptized who are alive on earth, 2 - the departed souls in purgatory, and 3 - those who are in the fullness of God’s presence in heaven – who together form one Church. To be of the communion of saints then is first to believe in Christ and to be baptized, sharing here and now on earth in His life, seeking to remain faithful through death onto receiving final purification and finally entering in the fullness of the life of communion in heaven.
Thus, to speak of the communion of saints includes souls in purgatory and those who have been baptized who are living in a right state of grace in this life. It is here that we must confront an important truth: that our membership in the communion of saints is not taken for granted simply by being baptized. We are called as members of the communion of saints to live always “in a state of grace,” or free from mortal sin. One who commits mortal sin chooses to be outside the communion (as every sin is a choice and mortal sin, as you hopefully recall, kills the life of grace in our souls – rejecting God’s love for us and the true life to which he calls us). Positively speaking, by remaining in grace, we both remain in the communion of saints and continue to remain open to an even greater share, as God draws us into deeper union and communion with Himself. God wants all his children to dwell with him – to the extent that he willingly offers forgiveness. It is this forgiveness that will be considered next.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 946 – 962 speak of the communion of saints along with other ways to understand the life of communion for which we are made.