Codification, Development, and Freedom: Completing Part 2, Dialogue with a Living Tradition: ch 5, 6, &7 of #FOGAP

fogap_coverIn these three chapters, Johnson meticulously engages with Christian tradition to trace the early origins, later development, and contemporary teaching on the saints, particularly but not exclusively with Catholic tradition. She sees evidence of both the companionship and patronage models, with the patronage model dominating from the early Middle Ages through the Council of Trent and the post-Tridentine Catholic church, while the companionship model was briefly recovered by the Protestant Reformers, and re-emerges during Vatican 2 as part of a re-orientation of the theology of the church in Lumen Gentium, which suggests a sacramental understanding of the communion of saints. Finally, she demonstrates that Catholics are not now and never have been required by the Church to practice private veneration of the saints according to traditional patronage forms, although it is now and long has been commended to the faithful as a good and useful practice of great spiritual benefit. The absence of any such requirement provides the freedom to re-imagine how the communion of saints can be fruitfully understood and practiced by Christians today.

Chapter 5 (“Institutional Settling”) briskly reviews the treatment of saints in the Apostle’s Creed, the liturgical calendar, and the institutional process of canonization. I was most surprised that the communion of saints had been added to the Apostle’s Creed relatively late, circa 400 CE, after the Nicene Creed has been finalized by the ecumenical councils of Nicaea (351, parts 1&2) and Constantinople (389, part 3): I had naively assumed that the Apostles Creed in its entirety had preceded the Nicene!

I was fascinated to learn that the Feast of All Saints (my very favorite feastday outside the major feasts of Easter Triduum & Christmas) had originally been placed on Easter Friday, for its closeness to Christ’s suffering and resurrection; or on the Sunday after Pentecost, as evidence of the fruits of the Spirit. Both placements are more clearly connected to the central mysteries of the faith than the Nov 1 placement in the West. The final section, on centralization of the canonization process and the resulting elitification of officially approved saints, mostly served to reinforce points she had made in the previous chapter.

In Chapter 6 (“Movements for Reform”), I was most interested in the writings of the Protestant Reformers that discuss the proper ways in which the saints may be honored, while repudiating invocation under the patronage model: thanking God for their lives, allowing their stories to strengthen our faith in God’s mercy, and imitating them (109). I particularly liked Wainwright’s suggestion that hymns in the Methodist tradition constitute “a kind of musical iconography” (112): this is quite consistent with my experience of hymnody in church. (Especially in the relatively young and bare Catholic churches in which I’ve worshiped most of my life!)

As a Catholic ecclesiologist, though, I was most engaged by her careful mining of Lumen Gentium for a vision of the church that incorporated the communion of sants, and vice versa. LG7, which is devoted to the communion of saints, teaches that our response to the saints is to love them, thank God for them, imitate them, and (“quoting Trent”) ask for their intercession: not so different from the understanding of the Protestant Reformers. Writing out of the deeply sacramental worldview that distinguishes Catholics from Protestants, LG goes further, describing the saints as “especially successful images of Christ,” or as Johnson puts it, “living parables” (119). LG entirely avoids “the term or idea of patronage, except in references to Trent” (120).

The church remembers [the saints’] bright patterns of holiness. They are a sign of our joy. (118)

In Chapter 7 (“Serenely Free”), Johnson goes to some effort to show that, even though private devotion to the saints (generally according to the patronage model) and particularly to Mary has been a Catholic badge of identity, there is actually no requirement that Catholics engage in these practices. This (mostly) didn’t surprise me, because I had always been taught that the majority of the Church’s great treasury of spiritual practices was allowed but not required: it was laid before us that we might have many choices, so everyone might find some things that appealed to them. (The one exception is the rosary: so much emphasis has been placed on praying the rosary in my lifetime that I was surprised by that one.)

The distinction between private & public devotion was interesting but not surprising to me, and the relatively minor elements of public devotion (which is required by Catholics who participate in the liturgies of the church) in the Eucharistic Prayers and the Litany of the Saints was interesting by comparison.


There was a video not too long ago that was pretty popular in Catholic circles; it purported to be a “Catholic Throwdown” between Stephen Colbert and Patricia Heaton, a guest actress. (Fastforward to about 1:50 to get to the Catholic stuff.) I love this video, because it’s all about Catholic identity: two Catholics bonding in public over a variety of Catholic badges of identity and tradition. A lot of it is about the saints, and mostly in the patronage or even folk superstition model that both Trent and Vatican 2 attempted to rein in. But the content is almost beside the point: Stephen and Patricia are having a fabulous time just being Catholic together. In light of what we read in these chapters, it’s not surprising that they were being Catholic together by means of the communion of saints — communion is just another word for togetherness, after all!




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1 Response to Codification, Development, and Freedom: Completing Part 2, Dialogue with a Living Tradition: ch 5, 6, &7 of #FOGAP

  1. Discussion questions:

    Q5: What appealed to you about the early codification discussed in ch5?

    Q6: Do you find the teaching on saints by the two reform movements (Protestant Reformation & Vatican 2) to be more similar, or more dissimilar? Does it make a difference?

    Q7: How do you feel about the absence of requirement regarding veneration of the saints in the Catholic church?

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