Once, when Jesus’ disciples were raising a ruckus with their praise, people complained about the noise. Jesus answered the critics: “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40).
Well, there’s nothing silent about the early Church’s witness to the doctrine of the Communion of Saints. It appears often in the documents we have from that period. It remains with us in the prayers and liturgies our spiritual ancestors have left us.
Still, even the stones do cry out. If you take a tour around the city of Rome and visit the places where the martyrs and popes were laid to rest, you’ll see graffiti and inscriptions dating back to the third century.
Some are roughly scrawled and full of misspellings; some are carefully chiseled and rendered as poetry. They represent prayers that rose from pilgrims and mourners. They are pleas for saintly intercession.
“Paul and Peter, pray for Victor!”
“I commend to St. Basilla the innocent Gemellus”
“Anatolias, intercede for your sister”
“Pray for your brothers and your friends”
“Pray for your parents”
“Martyrs and saints, keep Maria in mind”
“O Hippolytus, remember Peter, a sinner”
“Master Crescentio, heal my eyes for me!”
The invocation of the saints is a practice that dates to earliest times. Christians knew then, as they know now, that the saints of the past still surround us today. All who ever died still live, as Cardinal John Henry Newman said. And the blessed don’t stop caring about us because they’re having so much fun in heaven. On the contrary, their charity is perfected in heaven, and they have all the time in the world to indulge it.
rnThe God of the living
The saints of old are still alive, for God is the God of the living. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are still with us. Three of Jesus’ disciples — Peter, James and John — got to see this truth vividly realized, at the Transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah suddenly appeared and conversed with the Lord (see Mark 9:1-4).
With Jesus, the kingdom had indeed come in power, and its saintly subjects already enjoyed the privileges of citizenship. This was a fundamental part of the Christian faith from the beginning.
The Letter to the Hebrews includes a long list of the faithful departed, encouraging us by their example. But the point is that they’re not really departed.
These heroes of old are a “cloud of witnesses” surrounding us (Hebrews 12:1). The writer assumes here what the Catholic Church has always taught: that the saints are still with us and still interested in our humble affairs. Wherever we go, we have the company of those people whose lives showed the truth of God’s word.
Christians who died in the faith became part of that illustrious company. We see this more vividly still in the Book of Revelation, where martyrs cry out for us from heaven’s altar, begging for God to visit justice upon the earth (6:9-10). We see it in the golden bowls of incense, which are “the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 5:8, 8:4).
Devotion to the saints was a normal expression of basic Christian faith — faith in the immortality of the soul and in the saving justice and mercy of God. Believing what they believed, and what we still believe today, Christians sought the help of the saints in heaven as confidently as they had sought their prayers when those saints had walked the earth. For faithful people, after all, life is changed, not ended, at bodily death.
Certain saints, predictably, attracted the ardent piety of a greater number of Christians. We find abundant evidence for early devotion to the apostles and to the Blessed Virgin Mary. A scrap of papyrus discovered in Egypt preserves the earliest instance of a Marian prayer that’s still used today: “We fly to your patronage, O holy Mother of God; despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin. Amen.”
By the mid-200s, that prayer was already well-established enough to be incorporated into the Egyptian Church’s liturgy. The Church’s love for the Blessed Virgin, then as now, had its grassroots and its “official” expressions.
Her image appears painted on the walls of the Roman catacombs and engraved on cemetery markers in Egypt. She is depicted on common household items, such as oil lamps; and she figures prominently in much of the imaginative literature of the early Church — the spurious books known as New Testament apocrypha.
The early centuries were times of intense persecution, and so the martyrs were especially revered. From earliest times, the dates of their passing were carefully recorded, and Mass was offered in each martyr’s memory on his or her dies natalis, or “birthday” — the day of passage to eternal life. So plentiful were these observances that Church calendars, with their brief biographies of the saints, came to be known as “martyrologies.”
The reverence first given to apostles and martyrs was eventually extended to the greatest of the desert solitaries, to exemplary bishops and to those who performed extraordinary deeds of charity in the ordinary circumstances of life.
rnWe were made for this
For every Christian was created to live in this fellowship: the Communion of Saints. Every Christian was created to be celebrated on the Feast of All Saints.
When God made the first man, he said it is not good for him to be alone (Genesis 2:18). God made us to live in society, and our society is so much greater than we can see with our eyes. It includes all the angels and saints.
To live in the Church is to be a saint in preparation. The word “saint” means holy, and we are made holy by our baptism. At that moment we come to share God’s nature (2 Peter 1:4), and God’s nature is holiness.
When St. Paul addressed the Colossians, he addressed them as “the saints” (Colossians 1:2, 1:4). He said this even though they were very much alive and struggling. Because they were baptized, and because they were in the Church, they were “the saints.”
But he makes a distinction between the saints still struggling and those of their brothers and sisters who had already gone on to receive the crown in heaven. That latter group he calls “the saints in light” (Colossians 1:12).
“From now on,” St. Paul tells Timothy, “the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance” (2 Timothy 4:8).
Such is the crown of our creation — our birthright by baptism. God will give such sainthood to us, too, if we long for his appearance, and if we manifest that longing in our life and our deeds.
We celebrate that fact on Nov. 1, and we celebrate all those “saints in light” who have gone before us, preparing our way.
Mike Aquilina is author of many books, including “Roots of the Faith” (Servant Books), which treats the early Christian doctrine at greater length.