SASKATOON — Different understandings about Mary and the communion of saints were explored Oct. 19 during an Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue public event held at St. Philip Neri Church in Saskatoon.
Participants were reflecting on a section of “Called to Common Witness,” a 2015 joint statement by the local Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue, in which the two traditions affirm “the role of Mary as Mother of God and model of discipleship,” before adding that “Catholic devotional language and practices regarding Mary, as well as the saints, have raised concerns for Evangelicals.”
Speakers at the public event included Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue co-chair Harry Strauss, an associate pastor at Forest Grove Community Church, and Rev. Matthew Ramsay, pastor of St. Anne’s Parish in Saskatoon.
Strauss summarized the theological understandings of Catholics and Evangelical Christians about the meaning of the phrase “the communion of saints,” which is part of the Apostle’s Creed.
“Catholics believe that the communion of saints includes not only those on earth, but those who have already passed away,” he said, noting as well that for Catholics the term “saint” also refers to those who have been recognized by the church as canonized saints for their contribution and lasting legacy.
Fellowship is at the core of the communion of saints, Strauss said. “That fellowship begins with our communion with God, and based on that relationship with God, includes all believers. The key unifying factor is a shared relationship with Jesus Christ. For most Evangelicals, that is the heart of what the communion of saints means.”
Whether that communion also includes believers who have died and are now in the presence of God is one question, he said. Another is whether believers who are with God in heaven are inactive or whether they are engaged in prayer and intercession for those on earth.
“Catholics believe that there is a lively, dynamic, ongoing exchange between those who are on earth and those who are in heaven,” Strauss summarized. He also cited Scripture that would support this understanding.
However, for most Evangelical Christians, the idea would be new and foreign: “Fellow believers are in heaven, but the line between heaven and earth would be more set and more definite for the Evangelical. The flow between heaven and earth would not have he same measure of fluidity that one sees in the Catholic realm.”
The Catholic understanding is that those who are in heaven have the time and spiritual focus to intercede for those on earth, Strauss added.
“Because of this understanding, Catholics will ask their fellow believers in heaven to pray for them. Though we as Evangelicals might see this as praying to the dead, such would not be the case for Catholics. From their perspective they are simply asking their fellow believers, now in heaven, and very much alive in spirit, to intercede for them.”
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is one of those fellow believers, Strauss continued, saying he has come to understand that Catholics do not worship Mary, but ask her to pray for them.
“Evangelicals value the humility and obedience of Mary, and would look to her, as well as other biblical figures, as role models for the life of faith. But Evangelicals would not accord the same level of veneration that would be found within Catholicism. Nor would Evangelicals think in terms of asking Mary to intercede for them,” he said.
Strauss added that Evangelicals would also critique Catholics for embracing beliefs about Mary which from their perspective go beyond Scripture — such as the immaculate conception (that Mary was born without sin) and the bodily assumption (that Mary went directly to heaven).
In the midst of continuing division, Catholics and Evangelicals can look to the description of the wedding supper of the Lamb in Revelation 19:9, when full communion of the saints will be realized, Strauss added. “The heart of that experience will be fixing our eyes on Jesus Christ, the author and perfector of our faith, but a related dynamic will be the sense of fellowship and communion with fellow Christ believers and followers, regardless of tradition, be it Catholic, Evangelical or otherwise.”
Ramsay spoke about canonized saints as examples of love and holiness. “These are men and women that the church has identified as someone who is in heaven. There is a long process to go through, they examine their life, writings and ministry, and we also go through prayer as well, and we need to have some miracles that can be attributed to the prayers of these saints.”
Ramsay told stories of saints who have inspired him in his own life, including St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest sent to Auschwitz by the Nazis, who took the place of a man condemned to death by starvation; and St. Therese of Lisieux, whose “little way” expresses deep love for Jesus in every action, no matter how small or ordinary.
He explored the biblical roots of the Catholic understanding of the communion of saints, including “love is stronger than death” from the Song of Songs, and Paul’s teaching about the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12. “All those in Christ, living and dead, make up this one body, united in a love that is stronger than death. . . . It is all centred on Jesus, who draws us together, who makes us one, who keeps us one,” said Ramsay.
He also clarified the use of the word prayer, which for Evangelical Christians is reserved for God alone. He pointed to an older English use of the words “I pray you will” as a request to another human being, not only an address to God. This would be the Catholic understanding of praying to saints, asking them “to pray for us, and to pray with us,” he said.
“If we are in fact one body, if this communion is real and there is love that is stronger than death, then why not pray with St. Anthony? Why not ask him to pray for us, the same as I would a person on earth? It is that conviction too that death is not the end of life, and we would say it is not the end of love for people on earth. If anything, we would say heaven ought to be a place of greater love than it is here, and not less.”
During the event, Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue co-chair Nicholas Jesson, ecumenical officer for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon, presented discussion questions for Catholic and Evangelical participants to tackle at their tables, including a reflection on Hebrews 12:1, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses. . . .” as well as discussion about the Hail Mary.