Since the earliest days of the Church, Catholics have always venerated those holy men and women who have gone before us and are now with our Lord in heaven. Unlike most Protestant denominations, Catholics have a clear sense that we who belong to the pilgrim Church on earth are united with the Church triumphant in heaven and the Church undergoing purification in purgatory– we call this union the communion of Saints (cf. Catechism, #957). Together, the Church on earth, in heaven, and in purgatory form one Church, one Mystical Body of Christ.
Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church emphasized that Christ founded the Church, “the society structured with hierarchical organs and the mystical body of Christ, the visible society and the spiritual community, the earthly Church and the Church endowed with heavenly riches.” The Church on earth and the Church of heaven, are not two separate realities; “on the contrary, they form one complex reality which comes together from a human and a divine element” (#8).
This union, however, is not something static, but dynamic. Just as we who are members of the Church on earth help each other on the path of salvation through our prayers, good works, and example, so do the saints help us. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church stated, “Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness, add to the nobility of the worship that the Church offers to God here on earth, and in many ways helps in a broader building up of the Church. Once received into their heavenly home and being present to the Lord, through Him and with Him and in Him, they do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men. …So by their brotherly concern is our weakness greatly helped” (#49).
Note that the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church emphasized that Christ is the one mediator. Sometimes Protestants object to the Church’s devotion to saints because they misconstrue praying “to the saints” to mean diminishing the role of Jesus. While we may say, “Pray to the saints,” we actually mean asking them to intercede for us– to pray with us and for us– to our Lord, who bestows all graces. To refute this very objection raised by the first Protestant leaders, the Council of Trent (1563) stressed that “it is good and useful to invoke [the saints] humbly, and to have recourse to their prayers, their help and assistance, in order to obtain favors from God through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who alone is our Redeemer and Savior.” Yes, we must never lose our focus on Christ. However, the saints who are alive with Christ can indeed pray for us and by their vigilant and faithful example help keep our eyes focused on Christ. If anything, these saints, who have proclaimed Christ as Redeemer and Savior in their lives, want to lead all to Him, not to distract us from Him.
The very active role of the saints in the Church comes alive in the Liturgy. Remember that during the Rites of Baptism and Ordination, the faithful chant the Litany of Saints, invoking the aid of this cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). Each time we celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we remember these great saints, mentioning by name at least our Blessed Mother, the patron saint of the parish, and the saint whose feast it may be. In the Preface, the priest exhorts the faithful to lift up their hearts and join with all the angels and saints in praising God. During the Eucharistic Prayer, we recall their constant intercession for us. At this time, heaven is joined to earth once again as our Lord becomes present and dwells among us in the Holy Eucharist. Our communion with the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament unites us in communion with all the angels and saints. Therefore, we praise God for this great band of witnesses, and we must not forget to implore their aid, remembering, “Their glory fills us with joy, and their communion with us in your Church gives us inspiration and strength as we hasten on our pilgrimage of faith, eager to meet them” (Preface from the Solemnity of All Saints).