Communion of Saints: A Community of Holy People

The whole assembly is one, just at different stages, all of it loved corporately by God (and, one hopes, by us). Within this worldview, we are saved not by being privately perfect, but by being “part of the body,” humble links in the great chain of history. This view echoes the biblical concept of a covenant love that was granted to Israel as a whole, and never just to one individual like Abraham, Moses, or Esther. We are often too preoccupied with the “salvation of individuals” to read history in a corporate way, and the results have been disastrous. The isolated individual is now left fragile and defensive, adrift and alone, in a huge ocean of others who are also trying to save themselves—neither assisting nor relying on one another or the whole Body of Christ.

…summoned to go forth as companions bringing the face of divine compassion into everyday life and the great struggles of history, wrestling with evil, and delighting even now when fragments of justice, peace, and healing gain however small a foothold. When they are seen together with the whole natural world as a dynamic, sacred community of the most amazing richness and complexity, then the symbol of the communion of saints reaches its fullness as a symbol of effective presence and action of Holy Wisdom herself.

CAC 3/7/2021

In the fourteenth century, the inspired, anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing taught that God in Christ dealt with sin, death, forgiveness, and salvation “all in one lump.” It is a most unusual, even homely, phrase; for me, this corporate and even mystical reading of divine history contributes toward the unitive vision so many of us are seeking. Jesus by himself entered history as an individual, albeit a divine individual, but the Universal Christ is a compelling image for this “one-lump” view of reality.

I think this collective notion is what Christians were trying to verbalize when they made a late addition (fifth century) to the ancient Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the communion of saints.” They were offering us this new idea that the dead are at one with the living, whether they’re our direct ancestors, the saints in glory, or even the so-called souls in purgatory. The whole assembly is one, just at different stages, all of it loved corporately by God (and, one hopes, by us). Within this worldview, we are saved not by being privately perfect, but by being “part of the body,” humble links in the great chain of history. This view echoes the biblical concept of a covenant love that was granted to Israel as a whole, and never just to one individual like Abraham, Moses, or Esther. We are often too preoccupied with the “salvation of individuals” to read history in a corporate way, and the results have been disastrous. The isolated individual is now left fragile and defensive, adrift and alone, in a huge ocean of others who are also trying to save themselves—neither assisting nor relying on one another or the whole Body of Christ.

Theologian Elizabeth Johnson, a Sister of Saint Joseph, has worked for many years to redeem and expand the Catholic understanding of what exactly is meant by the “communion of saints.” She describes it as an “intergenerational community of the living and the dead stretching across time and space and comprised of all who are made holy by the Spirit of God.” [1] She writes:

In a physical and biological sense, interrelationship is not an appendage to the natural order but its very lifeblood. Everything is connected to everything else, and it all flourishes or withers together. . . .

Together the living form with the dead one community of memory and hope, a holy people touched with the fire of the Spirit, summoned to go forth as companions bringing the face of divine compassion into everyday life and the great struggles of history, wrestling with evil, and delighting even now when fragments of justice, peace, and healing gain however small a foothold. When they are seen together with the whole natural world as a dynamic, sacred community of the most amazing richness and complexity, then the symbol of the communion of saints reaches its fullness as a symbol of effective presence and action of Holy Wisdom herself. [2]

[1] Elizabeth A. Johnson, Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (Continuum: 2006, ©2003), xiii.

[2] Elizabeth A. Johnson, Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints (Continuum: 1998), 240, 243.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe (Convergent: 2019), 162–164.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s