The Great Cloud of Witnesses

"All Saints" by Fra Angelico

“All Saints” by Fra Angelico

When I was a Protestant I wondered why Catholics had so many statues of saints in their churches. There were two problems. First, I had been raised to believe that carved images were wrong because they broke the commandment “you shall not make to yourself any graven image.” Second, I was told that Catholics worshipped the saints, and sure enough, when I went into a Catholic church I saw people kneeling down and praying in front of the statues.

As I moved into the Catholic Church I studied the question of images. The argument had been around for a long time, but it came to a climax in the eighth century with the “iconoclasm controversy”. “Iconoclasm means “breaking of images”. At that time some leaders of the churches in the East argued that Christians should not use any carved or even painted images in worship. Those in favor of icons said they were permissible for a very interesting reason. Jesus Christ, they argued, was the image (“icon” means image) of the unseen God. They drew this idea from St Paul’s words in Colossians 1:15.

Before the incarnation God commanded that images could not be made because God was not visible and able to be imagined by man. However, because Jesus was the physical human icon or image of God, it was therefore permissible to create icons of Jesus. Furthermore, every Christian is called to be an image or likeness of Jesus in the world. Saints are ordinary Christians who have been completely fulfilled in Christ. Each saint is a unique image of Christ in the world. Therefore is is also permissible to make images of saints.

This is why we have images of saints — because they are images of Christ. We see Christ alive in them. Pope Benedict said saints are “living theology” and elsewhere he said that we can only interpret the Scriptures through the lives of the saints. In the saints we see the theories of our faith lived out in human history. In the saints we see the truths of Scripture alive in the lives of ordinary people. In the saints we see the grace of God at work in a powerful and real way.

This is why we have images of saints in our churches, and this is why we try to get images which are expertly made and beautifully designed. The images of saints should be the very best we can afford because the fine workmanship and beautiful natural materials in the image reflect the fact that the saint is “God’s handiwork” and the glory of the fine work of art reflects the glory and majesty of the saint God has created.

We venerate the saints because they show us our destiny. Each one of us, by virtue of our baptism and faith in Christ, are called to be complete and whole in Christ. As St Paul says in Ephesians, we are called to “grow up into the full statue of Christ’s humanity” The saints show us what that looks like.

As Catholics we venerate the saints, but we do not worship them. The church distinguishes three levels of veneration with three Greek words. “Latria” is the worship that is due to God alone. This is the worship we offer God through the sacrifice of the Mass and within Eucharistic adoration. “Dulia” is the veneration or honor we give to someone who we greatly admire and respect. This is the veneration we offer to the saints. “Hyperdulia” or “great honor” is the level of veneration and respect we give only to the Virgin Mary — who is the greatest of all created beings. The church teaches that the Blessed Virgin is greater even than the angels.

In addition to the honor we offer saints through veneration of their images and relics, we also pray to the saints. This is also confusing to non-Catholic Christians. We always need to make it clear that we do not “pray to the saints” in the same way that we pray to God. The confusion on this matter comes down to a question of language. When we pray to the saints we are using the word “pray” meaning “to ask”. This use of the word can be seen in archaic English usage. So in Shakespeare’s plays a character might say, “I pray you good sir, lend me a ducat.” He uses the word “pray” to mean “to ask.”

So when we pray to saints we are asking them to pray with us and for us in the same way that we might ask a friend, family member or fellow parishioner to pray for us.

In these ways — veneration and prayer to the saints — we live within the communion of saints. Hebrews 12.1 says we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” The saints are not dead people. They are alive in Christ and we share our faith with them and they share their faith and their prayers with us.

On this earth we are most closely united with the saints at the celebration of the Eucharist. I once went to visit an old priest named Fr. Richard who celebrated Mass early every morning.

“Were there many at Mass this morning Father?” I asked, making conversation.

His old eyes twinkled, “Oh yes! Millions! But I could only see three of them.”

He was referring to the “great cloud of witnesses” who worship with us every time we approach the altar of God.

The great cloud of witnesses is the saints of God. We must remember that the saints are not only those who the church has formally recognized as saints. There are multitudes more who have followed the path of perfection but not been formally recognized here on earth. At Mass we are one with them as together we join our lives with the life of Christ the Lord.


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About the Author

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. He conducts parish missions, retreats and speaks at conferences across the USA.

His latest book is The Romance of Religion - Fighting for Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Visit his blog, listen to his radio show, and browse his books at dwightlongenecker.com.

Catechesis teaches us what to believe and how to behave, but Catholics also need down to earth advice for putting their faith into action. For help in your practice of the Catholic faith sign up for FaithWorks! -- Fr Longenecker's free, weekly newsletter on the practical practice of the Catholic faith.

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Fr. Dwight Longenecker is an American who has spent most of his life living and working in England. Fr Dwight was brought up in an Evangelical home in Pennsylvania. After graduating from the fundamentalist Bob Jones University with a degree in Speech and English, he went to study theology at Oxford University. He was eventually ordained as an Anglican priest and served as a curate, a school chaplain in Cambridge and a country parson.

Realizing that he and the Anglican Church were on divergent paths, in 1995 Fr. Dwight and his family were received into the Catholic Church. He spent the next ten years working as a freelance Catholic writer, contributing to over twenty-five magazines, papers and journals in Britain, Ireland and the USA.

Fr. Dwight is the editor of a best-selling book of English conversion stories called The Path to Rome - Modern Journeys to the Catholic Faith. He has written Listen My Son - a daily Benedictine devotional book which applies the Rule of St Benedict to the task of modern parenting. St Benedict and St Thérèse is a study of the lives and thought of two of the most popular saints.

In the field of Catholic apologetics, Fr. Dwight wrote Challenging Catholics with John Martin, the former editor of the Church of England Newspaper. More Christianity is a straightforward and popular explanation of the Catholic faith for Evangelical Christians. Friendly and non-confrontational, it invites the reader to move from 'Mere Christianity' to 'More Christianity'. Mary-A Catholic Evangelical Debate is a debate with an old Bob Jones friend David Gustafson who is now an Evangelical Episcopalian.

Fr. Dwight’s Adventures in Orthodoxy is described as ‘a Chestertonian romp through the Apostles’ Creed.’ He wrote Christianity Pure&Simple which was published by the Catholic Truth Society in England and Sophia Institute Press in the USA. He has also published How to Be an Ordinary Hero and his book Praying the Rosary for Inner Healing was published by Our Sunday Visitor in May 2008. His latest books are The Gargoyle Code - a book in the tradition of Screwtape Letters and a book of poems called A Sudden Certainty, Adventures in Orthodoxy and The Romance of Religion.

Fr. Dwight has contributed a chapter to the third volume of the best selling Surprised by Truth series and is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine, St Austin Review, This Rock, Our Sunday Visitor and National Catholic Register. Fr. Dwight has also written a couple of children’s books, had three of his screenplays produced, and is finishing his first novel. He’s working on a book on angels and his autobiography: There and Back Again.

In 2006 Fr. Dwight accepted a post as Chaplain to St Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina. This brought him and his family back, not only to his hometown, but also to the American Bible belt, and hometown of Bob Jones University. In December 2006 he was ordained as a Catholic priest under the special pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy. He is the Administrator of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and an oblate of Belmont Abbey.

Fr. Dwight enjoys movies, blogging, books, and visiting Benedictine monasteries. He’s married to Alison. They have four children, named Benedict, Madeleine, Theodore and Elias. They live in Greenville, South Carolina with a black Labrador named Anna, a chocolate lab called Felicity, cat named James and various other pets.

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