In this initial chapter, Johnson surveys communities and academic disciplines in which study or practices around the communion of saints are, and are not, flourishing today (ie, in 1998). She closes by asking the questions that this book will attempt to answer: whether and how the symbol of the communion of saints can be reconstrued and reawakened in Western industrialized cultures so that it can nurture authentic community.
After an initial presentation of the communion of saints in both living and received tradition, Johnson spends most of this first chapter presenting evidence that it is largely an ineffectual symbol in the Western industrialized culture from which she writes, while it continues to flourish in Latin America and Africa, largely among communities for whom daily life is difficult, and in Orthodox Christianity, where it is upheld by the understanding of deification as central to the pursuit of holiness. In the Catholic West, what little Vatican 2 teaching exists on the subject (Ch VII) has not been fruitful in the life of the church, while the 16th-19th century teachings about life after death and saints as intercessors no longer match the spiritual needs of many contemporary believers.
Drawing on a study on individualism and community in American life, she describes communal practices of memory, hope, and commitment that are central to authentic community, and notes their similarities with the traditional Christian understanding and practices around the lives of the saints. This suggests some ecclesiological importance to her topic: how can the church be a vital community if we have lost the ability to meaningfully engage with the stories of the saints?
I want to engage with a couple of points that she raised in this chapter: first, on the post-Vatican 2 decline of devotion to the saints.
Years ago, I heard an anecdote that, when the reform of the liturgical calendar was being considered at the Council, one criticism was “But if we take away all those saint’s days, what will be left on the calendar??”
If that story shocks you, then you are evidence that the reform of the calendar has been truly taken up into the life of the church! 🙂 Having grown up in the 60s and 70s, I can confirm that there was a real need, and an associated serious effort, to re-center both the liturgical year and the devotional life of the faithful on the life of Christ, and on the central mysteries of the Incarnation and the Resurrection.
But there’s another factor that Johnson did not mention that I think was also significant in the decline of the veneration of saints, and that is the powerful ecumenical movement of the 70s, on both the Catholic and the Protestant sides. After generations of looking at the other with, at best, deep suspicion, Catholics and Protestants needed to learn that we were all Christians together. And because many Protestants find the traditional Catholic practices of statues and prayers to the saints to be deeply scandalous, my experience is that these were quietly de-emphasized, so we could focus on what we had in common.
It was in about the 90s that I personally started to feel as if, okay, that “we are all Christians together” thing had been pretty well solidified now, and it was time to start recovering some Catholic distinctives. (Note that this was five or ten years after Johnson wrote this book.) It was about this time that I started consciously performing my Catholicism, including a greater devotion to the saints.
The other point I wanted to respond to was the discussion of the lively tradition of the communion of saints in the Orthodox Christian tradition. Here, too, I have a bit of personal experience, because it was an Armenian Orthodox woman who first encouraged me to deepen my relationship with the saints as part of my spiritual life. We were penpals for a year or two after having met in an email study group of the Vatican 2 documents. She wrote eloquently of how the saints were always available and present to us for companionship and support in our daily struggles, and that I should not hesitate to pray to saints that I felt drawn to for help whenever I was having a hard time. I found this idea of companionship and support much more meaningful than the traditional approach to intercession that I’d been taught as a child; and the idea of deciding for myself which saints to pray to, instead of looking up whoever was officially named the Patron Saint of Whatever also appealed to me quite a bit.
Q1: So that we have a sense of where we are all coming from, please share a little bit about yourself, your faith tradition, and what drew you to reading this book.
Q1a: What were your favorite bits of this chapter? Were there lines that made you tear up, or particularly resonated for you? Were there parts that you strongly disagreed with?
Q1b: What has been your experience with the veneration of saints in your church communities? Does it match Johnson’s description?
Q1c: Do you agree that the symbol of the communion of saints needs to be re-construed and re-imagined if it is going to be a life-giving symbol in the church today? Why or why not?
We’ll use these questions during our Friday night reading buddy tweetup, but please feel free also to respond in the comments here, especially if aren’t on Twitter, can’t make it Friday night, or would like to make a lengthier reply than Twitter makes easy. Since we’ll be referring to the questions here, your comments will also be available to folks at the same time.
Please feel free also to suggest additional discussion questions!