The communion of saints–or perhaps rendered better in English as the saintly community–is an idea that dates clear back to Apostolic times. It is as old as the Church herself, and is clearly woven into Scripture’s depiction of Christ’s redemptive and saving work. When James is encouraging his audience to confess sins to each other, and to pray for one another in order to find healing, he says “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.” (James 5:16). So, it is possible in this life for a human being to be so conformed to Christ, to be righteous, to be a saint, that his or her prayers are powerful and effective. Why should this cease to be case after they die and are with God eternally? In Ephesians Paul describes how Christians are mystically and visibly woven together as one as the Body of Christ, and he describes this Body as something that exists now but also exists eternally. There is a Church Militant (the Church still struggling through this life) and a Church triumphant (believers who have passed onto the next life and are eternally present with God, waiting for the final advent of the new heavens and new earth. And both of these dimensions of the Church–militant and triumphant–are described by Scripture as, mysteriously, still being one. So, we are still united in Christ to those who have passed on to the next life. If we ask each other to pray for us in this life, why should be stop doing so when one passes on to the next life?
In Hebrews 4-10, Christ is described as our “high priest” who “lives always to make intercession” for us (Heb. 7:25). The author of Hebrews is describing how Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of Jewish high priests who was “taken from among men… appointed for men in the thing pertaining to God, that he may offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Heb 5:1). Moses is an example–a priest of priests to Israel who interceded for the Israelites before God by, as a member of the Levite tribe, performing sacrifices on behalf of all of Israel. And, on one occasion, Moses even interceded between God and Israel by begging God to spare them after they worshiped the Golden Calf. Thus, while Christ is now our ultimate and eternal high priest, who offers himself to God as victim, but in the offering is himself the high priest, the Old Testament also offers the possibility of human beings besides Christ who intercede for others before God, while relying ultimately on Christ for the ground and ability to do such a thing in the first place–they intercede to Christ for others, but ultimately depend on Christ, and Christ himself is the one who grants the grace or answer to prayer. Who better to do this than the Mother of God herself? Who can be closer to Jesus, more conformed to his likeness, than her, who was “full of grace,” and who St. Elizabeth called “the mother of my Lord?” (cf. Luke 1). It is clearly she who is the “woman clothed with the sun” in Revelation 12, with the “moon under her feet. and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. And being with child, she cried out in her travail and was in the anguish of delivery…” and she is taken into hiding in the wilderness for protection from a great dragon, which has many symbolic resonances, including the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt during Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents (rf. Rev. 12.1-6). Indeed, theologians look to Mary as the “Mother of all believers,” symbolized in Christ giving Mary to be the mother of John, and John the son of Mary, at the foot of the cross, implying that Mary is the Mother of the Church itself, not just John individually.
There are, clearly, other doctrines derived from Scripture that are not necessarily stated explicitly. The Trinity is an example. We cannot point to an explicit passage where the bible teaches the reality of the Trinity. Nonetheless, we puzzle through data from the whole of the Bible, make inferences, and draw conclusions that help us form a doctrine, or a dogma, that is binding for faith and morals on the part of believers. We engage in what Benedict XVI, in his preface to Jesus of Nazareth, calls “canonical exegesis,” or consulting the whole of the Bible when posing questions about doctrine, faith, and morals. Indeed, it is interesting that Christ himself never wrote anything down–he taught his disciples orally, and gave them spiritual authority to teach orally, spread the gospel, and start the Church. His Great commission makes this clear: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you” [emphasis added]. St. Paul himself instructs the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we have passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). In John 16-17, during Christ’s high priestly prayer, he implies that he will not be around long enough to teach them everything, but that the Holy Spirit will “guide” them into “all truth;” and John ends his Gospel by saying it would take a whole world of books to write down everything Christ said and did, implying that not everything Christ taught or did is recording in the Gospels (John 21.25). It is here, and in numerous other New Testament passages, that we must begin to construct a biblical doctrine of the Church, which Christ has invested with teaching authority via the Apostles and their successors, who safeguard the depositum fidei, or deposit of the faith, of the Gospel, and extend it to the world. The Church is described as the “pillar and bulwark of the Church” (1 Tim. 3:15), and Peter, in 2 Peter 1, makes this clear: “We have the word of prophecy, surer still, to which you do well to attend, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. This, then, you must understand first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is made by private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:19-21). Speaking on behalf of himself and the other Apostles as specifically ordained delegates of Christ’s teachings, the Gospel, Peter clarifies that the Church itself is an authoritative dispenser of truth to the fledgling Churches, and that Christians are not permitted to form their own private interpretation of God’s Word. The recent Vatican II document Dei Verbum describes this beautifully by calling Scripture and Tradition “mirrors” that reflect each other (see paragraph 3)–both offer us grace, since both flow from and are authorized by the will of Christ, the authority of Christ’s doctrine, which he himself said is not his own, but comes from the Father (John 7:16). Indeed, he wrote this letter as a way to follow-up about in-person, oral teaching that had already been delivered, and this letter and other New Testament writings did not come to be recognized, formally, as canonical inspired writings until Church councils decided upon an official list of Scripture’s table of contents initially at the Council of Nicea in 325, and more finally and formally at the Council of Carthage in 397, ratified and affirmed again in the wake of the Protestant rebellion, which sought to alter the Bible’s table of contents and the authoritative tradition of inspired books, at the Council of Trent (1545-1563; see Session 4).
The teaching authority of the Church, the communion of saints, Mary, the sacraments, the Scriptures, are all gifts, are all graces, that Christ holds out to us as the means by which we may come to fully experience, embody, and live out his redemptive work on Calvary. In a word, I am Catholic because the Roman Catholic Church is most fully and truly “Christ-centered.” It all flows from Christ, and all leads to him, because the slain lamb “in the midst of the throne” is truly within her, and he is truly Her Shepherd (cf. Rev. 5.6, 7.17).
In a follow-up post, I will attempt to more thoroughly treat the idea of “intercession” in Scripture, what it means for Christ to be intercessor, and what it means for Mary, the Saints, and all believers, in Christ, to likewise become intercessors as we join ourselves to Christ’s human nature, and thus share in his divine nature.