Work of Love

A Theological Reconstruction of the Communion of Saints

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Leonard J. DeLorenzo
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , March
     392 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Work of Love: A Theological Reconstruction of the Communion of Saints—based upon his doctoral dissertation—Leonard DeLorenzo presents a tightly-woven yet wide-ranging theological exploration of the Roman Catholic concept of the “communion of saints.” From early Christian practice through contemporary Catholic theology, his analysis strives to weave together a fresh presentation for 21st century readers. In six chapters DeLorenzo considers the origins and implications of the communion of saints from several different—yet ultimately interconnected—perspectives.

In the first chapter, DeLorenzo sketches out the “parameters” of his inquiry (3), with a brief review of the origins and development of the belief in the communion saints, rooted in the “practice of the faith” (12) rather than doctrinal disagreements.

In the next two chapters, DeLorenzo moves to consider a topic not often directly connected with studies of sainthood: the contemporary cultural concept of death. Throughout these chapters, DeLorenzo stresses the need to “take death seriously” (23) as the starting point in any discussion about the saints. Chapter 2 begins with the work of Philippe Ariès and his description of the late 19th and 20th century view of death as a “Forbidden Death,” a death that is viewed as such a radical “rupture” of personal relationship and interpersonal communication that it becomes both denied and hidden from ordinary life, a reality to be both suppressed and relegated to “medicalized” isolation in the sphere of hospitals and doctors. The chapter concludes with a consideration of modern reactions to death by selected post-Christian secular writers: Rainer Marie Rilke (using Romano Guardini’s commentary) and Martin Heidegger. Continuing his consideration of death, DeLorenzo turns in Chapter 3 to an analysis of contemporary Catholic Christian theological writers on death, primarily Karl Rahner (eschatology), Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI (salvation history), and Hans Urs von Balthasar (Christ’s “descent into hell”). Primo Levi’s experience at Auschwitz is included as an historical illustration of “the [ultimate God-forsaken] noncommunication zone of Sheol” (90). 

These insights on death are followed in chapter 4 with a specific focus on Christology. DeLorenzo revisits the post-resurrection appearances of Christ in the gospels as a foundation for reasserting the “properly historical” reality of the Resurrection-event as the “transformed physicality of his embodied life” (106). He then moves to examine how later human beings search for the “desire for the vita beata” (120) by using Augustine’s meditation on memory as an exemplar: behind one’s memories lies still this desire, this desire to see God, and through Christ, to become “the space” for God’s love (125). Following Henri DuLubac, DeLorenzo stresses that “human nature is indeed defined by a natural desire for a supernatural end” (132), and that end is found—through the reality of death—in becoming fully united with Christ. Thus, the transformed saints desire what Christ desires; they “communicate hope to us … [by] re-presenting the body of the living One in the presentation of their own word and deeds” (138).

In chapter 5, DeLorenzo deals with the issues of hierarchy and the sacraments in an eschatological theology of the communion of saints to argue that “the assumed dichotomy between hierarchy and communion is a false one” (142). In dialogue with John Thiel and, to an extent, Elizabeth Johnson, DeLorenzo’s examination of Dante Alighieri’s Purgatorio dispels the notion that “eschatological anxiety” (144-45) drives the suffering souls; instead, their misfocused desires are “reoriented” and “transformed” (146). When they pray, the saints pray for both “themselves and us,” as a result of their realignment of their own desires with the desire of Christ: “two movements of the same action” (146). This non-competitive “relationality” is perfected in the order seen in the Paradiso, an “undivided union” of “definite persons” (150). In contrast to Rilke’s total “erasure of personhood” (43) in death, or Heidegger’s statement of “death as the absolute end” (57), the Christian communion of saints offers “the fulfillment of human personhood” (157). After using both Augustine and Rahner in a consideration of what blocks this fulfillment—that is, sin—DeLorenzo returns to Dante and the Old Testament for a typological look at Baptism—the sacrament in which Christians both die and rise, freed from Original Sin, though not from all of its lingering “effects” (171). It is in the Eucharist that the communion, begun in baptism, is transformed in “living memory” and furthered in “eschatological hope” (179). He concludes this section with an analysis of the text of the Catholic Eucharistic Prayer I (the ancient Roman Canon), and a brief discussion of the Assumption of Mary.

Finally, in chapter 6, DeLorenzo offers five illustrations of the idea that Christ is the “type” and “archetype” of “holiness and humanity” (190). The first he chooses is Moses; in an analytical reflection on his scriptural actions as intercessor between God and the people of Israel, DeLorenzo supports the traditional view that Moses prefigures Christ, and further, in the transformation of his desires into God’s desire, serves as a “type” of the saints and their “communion in Christ” (197). The saints, in turn, “postfigure” Christ (202). DeLorenzo next analyzes the lives and writings of two canonized saints who have been named “Doctors of the Church” (Thérèse of Lisieux and Teresa of Avila) as well as Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Dorothy Day, who as “Servant of God,” has taken the first step towards official sainthood. DeLorenzo continues this chapter with an analysis of prayer texts from Mass formularies for the saints and for the dead, emphasizing the particularity of Catholic Christianity: “particular prayers to a personal God, who remembers particular persons in Jesus Christ” (231).

As strong as the book is, there are a few points that should be addressed. DeLorenzo draws upon many sources in this book. All of them, however, are Euro-centric; one wishes for a second book to examine “voices” from the wider, global Catholic community. In addition—in the face of the hospice movement and growing environmental concerns—it is possible that the cultural concept of death in North America is undergoing another cultural transformation in the 21st century, beyond the mid- and late-20th century sources DeLorenzo uses in his first chapters. The work of American theologian Johnson could also be considered more carefully and the strictly Roman Catholic address of the book seems to close off the possibility of its usefulness in interreligious dialogue (3); examples include statements like “Holy Saturday is the terrible, glorious last Sabbath of the old covenant” (94) and “What Moses prefigures, Jesus fulfills” (195).

DeLorenzo has made a substantial contribution to contemporary Roman Catholic theology in this complex volume, one that fruitfully links modern reactions to the ultimate reality of death with traditional and contemporary scriptural and theological perspectives on Jesus Christ’s death and Resurrection. In Work of Love, DeLorenzo has begun to revitalize the belief in the continuing communication/communion of the saints—transformed in Christ—with the living, who still seek the fulfillment of a desire beyond both personal memory and the limitation of human logic. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joanne Pierce is Professor of Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross.

Date of Review: 
April 17, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Leonard J. DeLorenzo is associate professional specialist and Director of Notre Dame Vision in the McGrath Institute for Church Life, and he also teaches in the Department of Theology at Notre Dame.


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