Today we celebrate the Solemnity of All Saints. For Protestants, our belief in the communion of saints can be a source of disagreement on multiple points: for example, the saints’ ability to hear our prayers, their power to intercede for us before God, and the devotions that we practice in their honor. But perhaps the most basic question they have is why we single out the saints in heaven at all. Many Protestants say there’s nothing really special about them, because the Bible says that all Christians are saints.
For example, in Colossians 1:1-2, St. Paul says:
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father (emphasis added).
This does seem pretty convincing. Why do Catholics only refer to canonized saints in heaven as saints when Paul seems to refer to the Colossian Christians that way?
Revelation 5:8 adds:
And when [the Lamb, Jesus Christ] had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints (emphasis added).
Here, we have “the twenty-four elders,” representing the people of God from both Old and New Covenants (twelve patriarchs plus twelve apostles equals “twenty-four elders”) receiving and communicating “the prayers of the saints” ascending from Earth as incense. So again, we have Christians on this side of the veil referred to as “saints.”
Some Catholics will argue that the term saints is being used in the sense of an aspiration. Paul wills the Colossians to be saints, so he refers to them here in accordance with their ultimate calling rather than their present state. I have never found that line of reasoning to be compelling. It doesn’t seem to work for either text, especially Revelation 5:8.
But even more importantly, that doesn’t seem to jibe with Church teaching.
So what gives?
When Colossians 1 and Revelation 5 refer to ”the saints,” it seems clear they both are referring to Christians who are presently “walk[ing] through the valley of the shadow of death” as the Psalmist says. At least, in some sense. But I find many among the non-Catholics I converse with regularly to be surprised when I tell them the Catholic Church acknowledges that all of the baptized can be referred to as “saints.” The Catechism says:
In the communion of saints, “a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things.”
In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others. Thus recourse to the communion of saints lets the contrite sinner be more promptly and efficaciously purified of the punishments for sin (1475).
An earlier passage in the Catechism makes it even more clear that all of God’s faithful can be referred to as saints:
After confessing “the holy catholic Church,” the Apostles’ Creed adds “the communion of saints.” In a certain sense this article is a further explanation of the preceding: “What is the Church if not the assembly of all the saints?” The communion of saints is the Church. . . . The term “communion of saints” therefore has two closely linked meanings: communion in holy things (sancta)” and “among holy persons (sancti)” (948).
Sancti, or “holy ones,” is the word from which we get saints.
The Catechism continues:
Sancta sanctis! (“God’s holy gifts for God’s holy people”) is proclaimed by the celebrant in most Eastern liturgies during the elevation of the holy gifts before the distribution of Communion. The faithful (sancti) are fed by Christ’s holy body and blood (sancta) to grow in communion of the Holy Spirit (koinonia) and to communicate it to the world.
Since the Church teaches that the faithful on earth can be called saints, why do Catholics use the term to refer to a special group of canonized persons in heaven?
I think St. Paul best answers this question. In Colossians 1:1-2, as we saw above, Paul definitively refers to all of the faithful at Colossae as “saints.” (The Greek hagioi is comparable to sancti in Latin: meaning “sanctified,” “set apart,” or “holy.”)
From a Catholic perspective, we would say of course St. Paul would refer to these Christians, and by allusion all Christians, in this way because “being set apart and made holy” is precisely what baptism accomplishes in the life of every Christian. We “have been baptized into Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:3) who is the source of all holiness.
But here’s the rub: the Catholic Church also acknowledges what Colossians 1:12 says:
Giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.
The Greek word for "share" in this text is merida, which means “to partake in part or a portion.” According to Paul, the saints on Earth possess in part what the saints in heaven possess in fullness. Thus, it is fitting that the Catholic Church reserves the title of saint to those it has declared to be in heaven. They alone (the saints in heaven) possess sainthood, if you will, in its fullness. They have reached the destination that we saints on Earth—holy ones by virtue of the graces God gives us for the journey—are in hope striving to reach.