Thursday, September 10, 2009

Column: The Communion of Saints

I was in DC for the American Chemical Society national meeting. The humidity was around 80%, the temperature in the 90s. Ugh. St. Patrick's was definitely a haven (once I found it). Part of my joy in finding the saints in the apse came from the contemplations I did during the Exercises that invoked the communion of saints. Not as an abstract construct, but as enduring reality.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 10 September 2009.

Clutching my map, gone damp with sweat on this early August morning in Washington, D.C., I finally realized I’d gone too far. The church I was headed for was two long blocks back. I turned around, hoping to find sanctuary before I melted from the heat.

The church’s cool, pale interior was a blessing. I knelt in a pew toward the back, feeling suddenly lonely. I missed my family and my parish community; there was no one here I knew. Or was there?

I looked up to see at least a dozen faces that I recognized, high on the wall of the apse encircling the sanctuary: Isaac Jogues, Kateri Tekawitha, Junipero Serra, Elizabeth Ann Seton. Icons of the saints and blesseds of the Americas surrounded the altar, looking down on those gathered here to celebrate the Eucharistic feast. The words of the Apostles’ Creed leapt to mind: “I believe…in the communion of saints.”

It was a vivid reminder of a truth so much a part of the early Church that historically it was the last article of faith to be folded into the Apostles’ Creed. In this moment of encounter with the Mystical Body of Christ of which we, the beati and “all those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith” are an integral part, suddenly I felt very much at home.

The Church understands the communion of saints to be both a communion in holy things and of holy ones — sancti and sancta. In a very real sense it is who we are, and who we wish to become. Creeds are not formulas to be recited or a checklist for baptismal candidates, but realities of faith that the words allow us to embrace.

I believe in the communion of saints. And so, I believe in the reality of the saints interceding for us. I turn to St. Thomas Aquinas when my clarity of thought is failing, that he might ask the Holy Spirit to again “grant me a penetrating mind to understand.” I hope that St. Maud is seeking heavenly patience on my behalf when my sons bicker over the last Klondike bar in the freezer. Particularly at the Eucharist I am aware of the support of those who have gone before me, perhaps most especially my first husband and my mother.

A dying friend said to me that when she imagined the communion of saints, she saw all those she had loved and who had loved her in this life coming forth to greet her at heaven’s gate. It’s an image I continue to treasure.

When I got off the train at Bryn Mawr on my return from Washington, I was expecting to walk the mile and bit home in the heat and humidity, dragging my suitcase along behind. As the train pulled out, I looked up to see two tall young men standing on the platform.

Mike and Chris had sleuthed out what train I would be on and ridden their bikes to meet me. The weight of my luggage was taken on their strong shoulders, and we all rejoiced in their surprise, eager to bring me home. I have seen the communion of saints — and I believe.

Credo in Spiritum Sanctum, sanctam Ecclesiam catholicam, sanctorum communionem, remissionem peccatorum, carnis resurrectionem, vitam aeternam.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

— From the Apostles’ Creed


  1. the Communion of Saints was not stressed (at least to my memory) in my Lutheran childhood. time with Jesuits have taken me there.

  2. I need to spend more time studying, understanding, and praying with the body of saints. Even though I went to parochial school through Grade 8, it wasn't stressed except at confirmation when we chose a patron saint.

    My parents know a great deal more about them - possibly a generational thing although it might be that mom spent 16 years in Catholic schools. I was fortunate to tour some wonderful museums in Europe with my parents. They immediately recognized the saints by the symbols used around them or that they held. I would have thought it was a man on a horse but they knew it was St. George.