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The Communion of Saints

The practice of praying to the saints is an ancient tradition of the Catholic Church. It is based on the doctrine of the communion of saints. This doctrine has nothing to do with receiving Holy Communion. Rather, it is the concept that the faithful on earth, the souls in purgatory, and the saints in heaven all form one big community, known as the Mystical Body of Christ. We form one body, one Church, with Christ as the head (Col 1:18).


Although in spirit we form one Church, the saints in heaven are said to comprise the Church Triumphant because they have already gained the crown of victory; the souls in purgatory are said to make up the Church Suffering because they still have to atone for their sins before they can enter heaven; and the living members of the faithful on earth are said to constitute the Church Militant because they are still in the process of struggling for their salvation. Although they are called differently by name, they constitute just one Church.

Since we form one family with the souls in purgatory and the saints in heaven, it is normal to pray for one another in the same way as we pray for members of our own family. The faithful on earth pray and gain indulgences by way of suffrage for the souls in purgatory; they also praise and pray to the saints in heaven for their intercession. In turn, the souls in purgatory show their gratitude and pray for the people on earth; at the same time, they praise and pray to the saints in heaven for their intercession. The saints in heaven obtain graces and intercede for the faithful on earth; at the same time, they also obtain relief and intercede for the souls in purgatory. 


The doctrine of the communion of saints is one of the most comforting dogmas of the Church, because it shows that we are not isolated here on earth. The doctrine of the communion of saints affirms our solidarity and continuity with the faithful departed and with the saints in heaven. The picture below illustrates how the faithful on earth are linked by prayer to the saints in heaven.

Theophany and the Communion of Saints

A ceiling fresco at St. Augustine Catholic Church (Minster, Ohio)

Photographed by Nheyob, CC BY-SA 4.0

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As members of one family, we all share in the treasures of the Church. The faithful departed benefit from our prayers and the merits gained by Christ and the saints. The faithful on earth also share the treasury of graces from the Church, although only those who are in the state of grace enjoy the full benefit of being a member of God's family.


One objection that has been raised against the practice of praying for the dead and praying to the saints in heaven is a line from St. Paul's letter to Timothy: "For there is one God and one mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Tim 2:5). Based on this text, some Protestants claim that the Catholic practice seems to usurp and therefore deny Christ's sole role as mediator. However, Catholics contend that Christ remains the principal mediator, but as members of Christ's Mystical Body, we also participate, in a lesser and subordinate way, in the mediatorship of Christ. 

The Communion of Saints in Holy Scripture

The doctrine of the communion of saints and the practice of praying for the dead and praying to the saints are not explicitly taught in the Bible, but the practice of interceding for others or asking for their intercession is not completely unbiblical. This may be seen from the example of the patriarchs, the prophets, and the Apostles—who all prayed for other people—and also from the teachings of Christ Himself. For example, Abraham negotiated with the Lord on behalf of the men of Sodom, so that the city might not be destroyed (Gen 18:20–33). Moses, too, prayed for the Israelites when they fell into idolatry, that God might forgive them of their sin (Ex 32:11–14). Samuel prayed to save the Israelites against the Philistines (1 Sam 7:3–15). Christ asked us to pray for our enemies: "But I say to you, love your enemies:;do good to them that hate you; and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you" (Matt 5:44).


The practice of the Apostles was no different. St. James exhorted us to pray for one another (Jas 5:16). St. Paul begged the Ephesians to pray for him that he might preach well (Eph 6:18–20). And, in that letter to Timothy before he wrote the line, "For there is one God, and one mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus," St. Paul also asked that prayers be made for all men:

"I desire therefore, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men: For kings, and for all that are in high station: that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all piety and chastity. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, Who will have all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim 2:1–4).


Of course, none of the examples given above show the practice of praying to the saints. Nor do the examples show the saints in heaven praying for us. But the thing is if we could pray for other people and ask our friends and family to pray for us without violating Christ's principal mediatorship, then why can't we pray for the souls in purgatory? And why can't we ask the saints as well as the souls in purgatory to pray for us, since we all belong to the family of Christ and are all members of His one Mystical Body? In other words, the objection based on Christ's sole mediatorship is destroyed by these examples.


Besides, there is also a line in the Book of Revelations that clearly speaks of "the prayers of the saints." St. John wrote the following as part of his visions:

"And when he had opened the book, the four living creatures and the four and twenty ancients fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps and golden vials full of odors, which were the prayers of saints" (Rev 5:18).


Now, what can the "prayers of the saints" be that are being offered to Christ? Certainly, these are not the saints' prayers for themselves, since they have already won the crown of victory and are already in heaven. These prayers must be their prayers on behalf of the living members of the Church on earth and the souls in purgatory.

The Communion of Saints in Sacred Tradition

But was this also the belief of the early Church? It is, as the following quotations from the Church Fathers testify:

St. Basil the Great (A.D. 329-379), The Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, "Saturday of the Souls," Dismissal prayer: "May Christ our true God, who rose from the dead and as immortal King has authority over the living and the dead, have mercy on us and save us, through the intercessions of his spotless holy Mother; of the holy, glorious, and praiseworthy Apostles, of our venerable and God-bearing Fathers; of the holy and glorious forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; of his holy and righteous friend Lazarus, who lay in the grave four days; and of all the Saints; establish the souls of His servants departed from us, in the dwelling place of the saints; grant rest to them in the bosom of Abraham, and number them among the righteous."

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (A.D. 315-386 ), Catechetical Lectures, Lecture 23, par. 9: "Then we commemorate also those who have fallen asleep before us, first Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, that at their prayers and intercessions God would receive our petition. Then on behalf also of the Holy Fathers and Bishops who have fallen asleep before us, and in a word of all who in past years have fallen asleep among us, believing that it will be a very great benefit to the souls, for whom the supplication is put up, while that holy and most awful sacrifice is set forth."

St. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), City of God, Book XX, Ch. 9, par. 2: "For the souls of the pious dead are not separated from the Church, which even now is the kingdom of Christ; otherwise there would be no remembrance made of them at the altar of God in the partaking of the body of Christ, nor would it do any good in danger to run to His baptism, that we might not pass from this life without it; nor to reconciliation, if by penitence or a bad conscience any one may be severed from His body."

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