Historians think that belief in the Communion of Saints slipped into the Apostles' Creed sometime between the 5th and 8th centuries. The Apostles' Creed was originally a statement of beliefs for instructing converts in the fourth century.
The meaning of the expression "communion of saints" has been disputed. Some think it originally meant "a sharing in holy things," such as participation in the faith and the sacraments. Others propose that the expression referred to "the fellowship of saints" (saints being the martyrs, the confessors, or perhaps all the baptized.) The most common interpretation today is the latter.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the communion of saints as "the unity in Christ of all the redeemed, those on earth and those who have died."
In his book Catholicism Father Richard McBrien explains it in these terms: "The spiritual union of the whole community of believers in Christ, living and dead. Those on earth are called the Church Militant. Those in purgatory are the Church Suffering. Those in heaven are the Church Triumphant."
In other words, a person need not be canonized to be considered a part of this communion or fellowship; even the souls undergoing purgation are considered "saints." And believers still living on earth qualify too.
I saw artistic representations of this belief, this communion of saints, in two parish churches recently --the one was in St. Elizabeth Seton Church, Naperville, Illinois; the other was in St. John Church, West Chester, Ohio.
Artist and former teacher at the Chicago Academy of Fine Art Lilian Brulc created six murals on the rear walls of St. Elizabeth Seton Church in Naperville. In her depiction of the communion of saints Brulc chose 52 individual persons as examples of virtue worthy of imitation.
Some of her choices are to be expected: Elizabeth Seton, Mary, Joseph, Therese of Lisieux, John the Evangelist, Francis of Assisi. Others may come as a surprise: Isaiah the prophet, Fabiola, Raphael the Archangel, Joanna the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, Pier Giorgio, Gabrielle Bossis.
Some are canonized, others are not. Bossis, who died in 1950, was included because of her devotion to the Blessed Sacrament; Giorgio, who died in 1925, was known for his living out the Beatitudes, and his body remains incorrupt. They serve as examples that sanctity comes in many shapes and sizes, and all, whether officially recognized by canonization or not, can be worthy of the title "saint."
In St. John Church, West Chester, there are six extraordinary bas reliefs of Elizabeth Seton, Oscar Romero, Thea Bowman, Dr Tom Dooley, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, and Dorothy Day.
A committee of parishioners, as a new parish church was being designed, chose these six as emblematic of the communion of saints, as models of Christian life in the modern world. Elizabeth Seton, wife, mother, widow, convert, foundress of the Sisters (Daughters) of Charity in the United States. Oscar Romero , advocate for social justice, the martyred bishop of El Salvador.
Thea Bowman, African-American, convert to Catholicism, religious Sister, witness to Gospel values in her teaching and her struggles with cancer. Dr Tom Dooley, US Navy medical officer, selflessly serving the huge refugee camps in war-torn Viet Nam.
Cardinal Bernardin, former Archbishop of Cincinnati, falsely accused, reflected Gospel values in clearing his name and enduring his fatal bout with cancer. Dorothy Day, social activist, pacifist, servant of the poor and broken through the Catholic Worker Movement.
Perfection eluded nearly all of those honored in the murals and the bas-reliefs, but each reflects the courage that comes from Christ when weak humanity opens itself to the power and presence of God.
In his book Becoming Who You Are Father James Martin, SJ, addresses the call to sainthood: "...whether we work in a corporate office in midtown Manhattan or as a housewife in a small house in Iowa. Whether we are caring for a sick child late at night or preparing a church dinner for hundreds of homeless men and women. Whether we are listening to a friend tell her problems over a cup of coffee or slogging late hours at work in order to help put our children through school...Whether we are rich or poor, young or old, straight or gay: all of us are called to our own brand of personal holiness."
As Thomas Merton put it, "For me to be a saint means for me to be myself."
The Communion of Saints inspires us to be who we are --in Christ.