We Catholics do something that most Protestants think is quite strange: we pray to saints. That is, we plead the intercession of Christians who have died and gone to heaven before us (and angels, too). Our separated brethren often see this as unbiblical — a disservice to God. The objecting Protestant typically holds that this practice attributes to mere creatures what should only be attributed to the Creator – the ability to intercede for others before God. It is also seen as communicating with dead people, an abomination(Deut 18:11). In objection they quote the bolded portion of the following passage:
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus…” (2 Tim 2:1-5 RSV)
How would you respond?
I think that the above passage falls short as an objection. Here are a few reasons why:
1. “To pray” does not necessarily mean “to worship”. Catholics understand that when we pray to God, it is an act of worship where we obtain grace directly from the very Source of grace itself. It is a “surge of the heart” towards the one God.
Prayer to saints is different. To pray can mean to worship, but not always; it can also mean to request or plea. Have you ever heard the old English phrase “Pray tell me…” used before asking a question? The use of the word “pray” in this context initiates a plea or request. This is also the context Catholics work within when praying to saints and angels.
When we pray to saints and angels, we request their intercession before God. We invite the invisible but living members of the Church who are more substantially in the presence of the “God of the Living” (Lk 20:38) to be another link in our prayer chain. Surely all Christians see the value in going to the most righteous members of the Church with our prayer intentions since they are “great in effect” (Jas 5:16). There are none more righteous than those who have been perfected in heaven.
2. Jesus shares His one mediatorship. Read the preceding verses of the above Bible passage for example. St. Paul exhorts Timothy:
“I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone… This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior… there is also one mediator between God and humankind…” (2 Tim 2:1-5)
Here St. Paul urges that we pray for one another. According to the apostle, we should go before God and mediate on behalf of our neighbour – an act of service that is right and acceptable! God welcomes us to participate in his divine activities. For example, He allows us to work with Him as co-creators and as evangelists to fill His Kingdom although He could create and convert without us if He desired to. In much the same way he also welcomes us to be co-mediators by praying for one another, while on earth and while in heaven.
There is only one Church, one Body of Christ, which spans heaven and earth (Rom 12; 1 Cor 12), and Christ calls its members to pray for one another. Those who dwell in heaven are not exempt from this supreme act of love. This is clear from Scripture.
3. The Scriptures do not condemn pleading the intercession of the saints. The Bible condemns necromancy. But prayer to those in heaven is not necromancy. Necromancy involves magic, and the obtaining of information and abilities through the power of evil spirits. It is an abomination. But imploring the intercession of the saints and angels is fundamentally other in comparison, as it is an act of faith in the power of God and an invitation to charity.
Necromancy seeks the fulfillment of human will. Asking the intercession of the saints seeks the fulfillment of God’s will.
Necromancy functions by the powers of evil. The intercession of the saints functions by the power of God.
Necromancy is condemned in the Bible. Obtaining the intercession of the saints is not.
4. The intercession of the saints (and angels) is explicitly biblical. Take a look at the Book of Revelation. In chapter 5, twelve elders in heaven offer the prayers of the saints before Jesus. The “prayers of the saints,” in this context, are the prayers of Christians on earth:
“…the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints…” (Rev 5:8)
Again, a few chapters later, we see the angels also offering the prayers of the saints before God with incense (Rev 8:3-4). From these and surrounding passages in the Book of Revelation, we see that the saints and angels are not only aware of the Christians yet on earth, but that they also willingly offer prayers before God in heaven on these Christians’ behalf (see also Hebrews 11 & 12:1).
Thank you, St. John, for this profoundly expository and mind-exploding Book! (Hint: Reading the Book of Revelation is like tackling a “Where’s Waldo” book – it demands careful and meticulous exploration to see what’s there.)
5. The Bible does not teach that we will lose the duty or ability to pray for one another at any point (including after death). No Scripture verse supports the notion that we can no longer pray for one another once we die and go to heaven.
Furthermore, we don’t know exactly how the saints and angels become aware of our petitions but that is no reason to deny the doctrine. It’s only an absence of information, and not a proof against. The notion that God would disable saints in heaven from interceding for their fellow Christians who are working out their salvation with fear and trembling on earth, seems to approach absurdity.
6. If God can give humans the power to heal and do exorcisms on earth, surely he can give saints the power to hear many requests at once. Time does not hinder in heaven. “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Pet 3:8). The sheer magnificence of the idea of a mere creature interceding for a thousand other creatures at once is striking. But it should not scandalize. God does not just want to make us partakers in His mediation before God — he wants to make us “partakers of divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4).
7. King David made requests to angels.
“Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, obedient to his spoken word.” (Ps 103:20)
“Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!” (Ps 148:2)
8. Jesus corresponded with the “faithful departed” at the Transfiguration (Matt 17; Mark 9; Luke 9). This tells us that there are some ways by which it can be good and holy to communicate with those who have departed from their earthly life.
9. The earliest Christians sought the mediation of saints and angels through prayer. Protestant historian, J.N.D Kelly, acknowledges this in his book Early Christian Doctrines (p. 409). See also Clement of Alexandria’s Miscellanies (7:12), Origen’s On Prayer (11) or Cyprian of Carthage’s Epistle (56:5). These three examples are all from the first half of the 3rd century. Additionally, early Christian inscriptions on the walls of the Catacombs implore the intercession of the deceased. These examples are only a small sample of the clear advocacy for praying to the saints and angels in the early Church. It is, thus, clear that requesting the prayers of holy men and women who have died was common practice.
The beliefs of the Catholic Church can only make full sense when they are understood to have Christ at their center – and truly all Catholic doctrines do have Christ at the center. Looking through the right lens, any Christian should be able to see that God is glorified through the intercession of the saints, rather than offended. “The prayer of a righteous man is great in its effect” (Jas 5:16) and for this reason we especially pray to the members of the Body of Christ who have been perfected in righteousness by God’s grace.
Indeed, to properly understand the intercession of the saints and angels, one might reflect on St. Therese of Lisieux’s famous words: “Everything is grace.”
St. Therese, pray for us that we might come to see God’s wisdom in all things.
For more on praying to the saints, click here.