Nihil Obstat: Edvardus Can. Mahoney, S.T.D., Censor Deputatus

Imprimatur: E. Morrogh Bernard, Vicarius Generalis

Westmonasterii: Die X IVNII MCMXLVII (1947)

The term “Communion of Saints” seems to have been first inserted in the baptismal creeds in the South of Gaul; and it is to be understood as the South Gallic writers of the fifth and sixth centuries understood it; giving the word “Saints” the normal meaning which it still holds today: the Elect, those who have attained the end for which they were made, in the Kingdom of God. The term “communion” is used in the abstract sense and means a spiritual benefit conferred in the Church, or the Mystical Body of Christ.

And so the addition “the Communion of Saints” signifies the inward spiritual union of the faithful as members of Christ’s Mystical Body with the other members of this Body, especially the elect and perfectly just, whose participation in the heavenly kingdom of God is absolutely certain, and through whose intercessions help may be given to the faithful still wayfaring on earth.1

In venerating the Saints of God and especially the Mother of God, we give them due honour because of the supernatural excellence we recognise in them as derived from God himself through the merits of Jesus Christ. It is therefore to the honour and glory of God that is ultimately directed all the veneration paid to his servants. Strictly speaking a like honour might be paid to saintly men and women while they are still living on this earth. It is, however, the custom of the Church not to venerate the just until she has declared by infallible decree that they are in definitive enjoyment of their eternal reward in heaven. In English we are accustomed to speak of “honouring” or “venerating” the Saints, while the cult of “adoration” is reserved for God alone. This distinction for the rest, a convenient one may be regarded as roughly corresponding to the Latin theological terms dulia: the honour paid to the Saints, and latria: the worship paid to God alone.

Mary is particularly honoured because of the special greatness of the favours she received from God. She is what God made her, and as such we recognise her. All her graces on earth and her glory in heaven are celebrated in relation to her unique privilege: her Divine Maternity. By reason of her unique supernatural excellence the special veneration which we pay to her is called “hyperdulia.”

In honouring her and the Saints of God the Church would have us celebrate with veneration their holiness which they owe to the merits of Jesus Christ; obtain their prayers — which avail only in so far as by the divine ordinance they intercede in virtue of the grace they have received from Christ the Head of the Mystical Body, and in view of his merits; and finally set before ourselves the example of their virtues, the exercise of which is due to the grace of God through which they were united to the Mystical Body, and so imitated the model of all virtues, Jesus Christ himself. The veneration of the Saints is thus directed to the glory of God, who is wonderful in his Saints, and therefore in his Saints is duly honoured.

So eminently reasonable is this practice, so perfectly in accord with the doctrine of the Mystical Body, that we are not surprised to find that from the earliest times Catholics have paid honour to the Saints. We may see it especially in the commemoration of the Martyrs. Thus when Faustus the Manichean objected to the practice St Augustine replied:

Faustus blames us for honouring the memory of the martyrs, as if this were idolatry. The accusation is not worthy of a reply. Christians celebrate the memory of the martyrs with religious ceremony in order to arouse emulation and in order that they may be associated with their merits and helped by their prayers. But to none of the martyrs do we erect altars as we do to the God of the martyrs; we erect altars at their shrines. For what bishop standing at the altar over the bodies of the martyrs ever said “We offer to thee, Peter, or Paul, or Cyprian ?” What is offered (i.e., the sacrifice) is offered to God who crowned the martyrs, at the shrines of the martyrs, so that the very spot may remind us to arouse in ourselves a more fervent charity both towards them, whom we can imitate, and towards him who gives us the power to do so. We venerate the martyrs with the same love and fellowship with which holy men of God are venerated in this life … but the martyrs we honour with the greater devotion that now, since they have happily gained the victory, we may with the greater confidence praise those who are blessed, in their victory than those who in this life are still striving for it.2

With regard to the intercession of the Saints let it suffice to note with St. Thomas that

prayer may be offered to a person in two ways, either so that he himself may grant it, or that he may obtain the favour from another. In the first way we pray only to God, because all our prayers should be directed to obtaining grace and glory, which God alone gives, according to the Psalmist (83): “The Lord will give grace and glory.” But in the second way we pray to the angels and Saints, not that through them God may know our petitions, but that through their prayers and merits our petitions may be effective. Hence we read in the Apocalypse3 that, “the smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended up before God from the hand of the Angel.” And this is manifest also from the method which the Church uses in praying; for we ask the Trinity to have mercy upon us; but we ask the Saints to pray for us.4

Closely associated with the veneration of the Saints is the honour paid to their relics and images. The principle underlying the veneration of relics is thus set out by St Thomas

It is manifest that we should show honour to the saints of God as being members of Christ, the children and friends of God and our intercessors. Wherefore in memory of them we ought to honour every relic of theirs in a fitting manner: principally their bodies which were temples and organs of the Holy Ghost dwelling and operating in them, and as destined to be likened to the body of Christ by the glory of the Resurrection. Hence God himself fittingly honours such relics by working miracles at their presence.5

A similar reason justifies the veneration of their images. The images recall the Saints to our minds, and the reverence we pay to them is simply relative, as the images themselves, considered materially, have no virtue in them on account of which they should be honoured. The honour paid to them passes to the rational persons, the Saints, whom the images represent. The purpose of the practice is explained by the second Council of Nicaea in its decree concerning sacred images

that all who contemplate them may call to mind their prototypes, and love, salute and honour them, but not with true “latria” which is due to God alone. … For honour paid to the image passes to the prototype, and he who pays reverence to the image, pays reverence to the person it depicts.6

A final application of the doctrine of the Mystical Body may be found in Indulgences.7 The matter is explained by St Thomas as follows:

The reason why indulgences have value is the unity of the Mystical Body, in which many of the faithful have made satisfaction beyond what was due from them. They have borne with patience many unjust persecutions, whereby they might have expiated many temporal punishments if they had deserved them. The abundance of those merits is so great as to surpass all the temporal punishment due from the faithful on earth, and that particularly owing to the merit of Christ. That merit, although it operates in the Sacraments, is not limited to the Sacraments in its effectiveness: but its infinite value extends beyond the efficacy of the Sacraments. Now, as we have seen above,8 one man can make satisfaction for another. On the other hand, the Saints, whose satisfactory works are superabundant, did not perform them for some one particular person (otherwise without an indulgence he would obtain remission) but in general for the whole Church, according to the words of St Paul,9 “I rejoice in my sufferings on your behalf, and make up in my flesh what is lacking to the sufferings of Christ, on behalf of his Body, which is the Church.” And so these merits become the common property of the whole Church. Now the common property of a society is distributed to the different members of the society according to the decision of him who is at the head of the society. Consequently, as we should obtain the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, if another had undertaken to make satisfaction on our behalf, so too do we obtain it when the satisfaction of another is applied on our behalf by him who has authority to do so.10


  1. Kirsch, The Doctrine of the Communion of Saints in the Ancient Church (Tr. McKea), 268. [return]
  2. Contra Faustum, 1. 20, c. 21. [return]
  3. Apocalypse 8:4 [return]
  4. II, IIae, Q. 83, A. 4 [return]
  5. III, Q. 25, A. 2 [return]
  6. Denzinger, 302 [return]
  7. Cf. Essay 27 : The Sacrament of Penance, pp. 976-980 [return]
  8. Q. 13, A. 2 [return]
  9. Colossians 1:24 [return]
  10. Summa Thelogica, III, Q. 25, A. 1 [return]