Most Catholics grew up seeing altars and candles before statues or images of saints at church, becoming accustomed to the use the word “saint” only when it came to very specific individuals.
And yet, when we read the Scriptures, we stumble across passages where Christians in general are referred to as “saints”: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus… to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ at Colossae” (Col 1:1-2).
We may then wonder whether the Church is correct in only giving certain Christians the title “saint.”
To understand the basis for this restricted use of the word saint, we must take a look at the doctrine of the “communion of saints.”
The Church teaches that “the communion of saints is the Church” (CCC 946-962).
“Saint” comes from the Latin “sanctus,” and refers to something or someone that has been “set apart”, that is “holy.”
The reason St. Paul calls Christians “saints” is that Christians have been “set apart” and made holy by the grace of baptism. They are not like the rest of the world.
But the doctrine of the communion of saints, which is mentioned in the Apostle’s Creed, is more than that. It is based on the teaching that all baptized faithful form one body in Christ (Rom 12:15; 1 Cor 12:12-27).
Because they form part of one Body, “the good of each is communicated to the others,” which makes the communion of goods throughout the body possible.
As the Catechism explains, this phrase — in Latin, “communio sanctorum” — has had two deeply related meanings since Early Christianity: communion in holy things (sancta) and communion among holy persons (sancti).
The first meaning of this phrase explains that the spiritual goods that are communicated include the faith received from the apostles, the diversity of charisms, the charity that is carried out, and the sacraments — especially the Eucharist, “because it is primarily the Eucharist that brings this communion about.”
The ‘saints’ in heaven, earth and purgatory
The second meaning of the phrase refers more specifically to the communion of the “sancti,” the “saints” or “holy persons.”
It must be noted that in Latin, there is no distinction between the words “saint” and “holy.”
Keeping this in mind, all holy persons are in communion for belonging to the same Body, even the ones who have already died.
For this reason, the communion of saints extends through time and encompasses three different states of the same Body, which is the Church: the Church Militant (on earth), the Church Penitent (in purgatory) and the Church Triumphant (in heaven).
These distinctions are deeply Biblical, and they help us see why the Church bestows on some of its members who have passed form this life the title “saint.”
Paul himself distinguishes between the “saints” who are still on earth and the ones who are in heaven, in God’s presence: “May you be strengthened with all power… giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light” (1:11-12).
These “saints in light” are those who have passed before us and that enjoy the light of God. According to Paul, these “saints in light” are the ones who possess the full “inheritance,” and the Christians on earth only “share” or “partake” in that inheritance.
In other words, only the “saints” in heaven possess the fullness of “sainthood” or “sanctity” which comes from Christ himself, because they are in full communion with God. What we see “in a mirror dimly,” they see “face to face” in the beatific vision (1 Cor 13:12).
For this reason, the Church upholds the saints in heaven with unique veneration. They are in God’s presence and are “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pe 1:4). They have “run the race” and have been crowned (2 Tim 4: 7-8).
Those of us still on earth form part of the Church Militant and continue to run the race as pilgrims.
Those who form part of the Church Penitent in purgatory (1 Cor 3:15; 2 Macc 12:43-45) are the ones who have run the race but have not reached the perfection needed to be in the presence of God, for “nothing unclean shall enter [heaven]” (Rev 21:27). For this reason, Christians are called to practice penance and mortification on earth, that they may be purified and enter heaven when they pass from this world.
Since we form part of the same Body, we are called to pray for these holy souls in purgatory, “that they may be loosed from their sins,” while they also intercede for us (CCC 958).
This is the first step in understanding why as Catholics we are not mistaken when we call certain people “saints.”
The Church does not pretend to have a list of all the saints in heaven. As far as we know, one of our deceased family members may be enjoying the beatific vision. Even then, we should pray for them, that they may be made perfect and enter heaven, for we won’t know for certain if they have, unless the Church confirms it through a rigorous process.
What we do know is that those who have run the race and have been victorious are not indifferent to the challenges we currently face. Rather, by forming part of the same Church, they are always attentive to our prayers and, through their powerful intercession, are eager to help us join them in heaven.
Acknowledgements: Catholic Encyclopedia, Catholic Answers