A non-Catholic friend of mine who’d been following the news about JPII’s beatification wanted to know how prayer to saints worked. Specifically, he asked:
- (1) Can you pray to any Saint you want?
- (2) Do you have to wait until they’re canonized?
- (3) Is it form prayers or extemporaneous?
- (4) Doesn’t this violate Christ as Sole Mediator and Intercessor?
- (5) Why pray to the Saints at all?
- (6) Why not go directly to Christ?
- (7) How can the Saints hear us? Do they ever get overloaded with requests?
(1) Yes, you can pray to any Saint you want. There are patron saints, yes, but you’re not bound to pray only to them. So you can go to St. Thomas More for law-related concerns. You could just as easily pray to St. Teresa of Avila or anyone else.
(2) No, you don’t have to wait until they’re canonized. Canonization simply recognizes that they’re in Heaven. It doesn’t create that reality, it just reflects it. And one of the ways that a Saint becomes canonized is by answering prayers. So if no one prayed to Saints until they were canonized, no more Saints would be canonized.
(3) Either one is fine. I’ve talked about the way Catholics pray before, about how we’re fine with both ways. So’s the Bible. You’ve got the Lord’s Prayer and the Book of Psalms. That’s 151 “form” prayers right there. There are more: the Bible’s chock full of pre-written prayers. But not just pre-written prayers. You also have spontaneous prayers, like Thomas crying out “My Lord, my God!” to Jesus (John 20:28). The same is true for the Saints, so you see things like, in Luke 16:19-31 (which we’ll get to in a minute), spontaneous prayer to Abraham.
(4) Christ is our Sole Mediator, but He’s not our sole Intercessor. 1 Timothy 2:1-6 makes that totally clear:
I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone — for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time.
Since Christ alone is both God and Man, and thus, He’s the only one who can Atone for our sins — and in that sense, He’s our sole Mediator. But in the same breath, Paul says that we are called to intercede for everyone, including secular authorities and non-Christians, since God wants all men to be saved. The distinction between “intercession” and “mediation” is explicit here, and any attempt to take the second half of this passage as a negation of the first half is the worst sort of proof-texting. Besides this, Scripture shows us plenty of examples of intercession, like Abraham interceding for the people of Sodom, and saving Lot in the process (Gen. 18:16-33).
(5) The short answer to “Why pray to Saints?” is, “the Bible says to.” As we saw from 1 Tim. 2:1-2, we’re supposed to pray for one another, and even for secular authorities and non-Christians (“everyone”). James 5:16 tells us: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” So we’re supposed to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another. Catholics simply understand this “one another” to include those Christians who have died. Does it? Hebrews 12:1 seems to suggest so, when it refers to the Saints in Heaven as a “great cloud of witnesses” which surrounds us. In the context, Paul is analogizing the Saints to a crowd cheering on runners. That sounds very much like the Saints in Heaven are still involved, looking out for and supporting us. This obviously entails prayer, since those in Heaven are constantly in prayer before God.
So Catholics speak to the dead Saints the same way we do to the living. For example, in the “Confiteor” at the start of Mass, we confess our sins to one another, as James 5:16 instructs us:
I confess to almighty God,
and to you my brothers and sisters,
that I have sinned through my own fault,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done,
and in what I have failed to do;
and I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin,
all the angels and saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters
to pray for me to the Lord our God.
We’re asking for everyone (the Virgin Mary, the angels, the Saints in Heaven, and the Saints on Earth) to intercede for us. And we’re confessing our sins to all of those people plus God (asking God to intercede for us is nonsensical).
And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. This, then, is how you should pray …
(7) Time surely doesn’t work the same way in Heaven as it does on Earth. In Matthew 18:10, Jesus describes guardian angels as constantly interceding. Specifically, in referring to small children, He says, “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” Somehow, the angels are capable of simultaneously beholding God and watching over these children. Likewise, in Luke 1:19, the angel Gabriel describes himself as standing in the presence of God even as he’s sent to Zachariah. Same thing for the angel Raphael in Tobit 12:12 (see here).
Psalm 90:4 says that a thousand years are like a day to God, and a day like a thousand years. That’s obviously true of God, who isn’t bound by time at all, but it appears to be true of anyone in the spiritual realm. Time is connected to space (thanks, Einstein!) so a world with totally different material properties has totally different temporal ones as well,
To understand the mystery of dead Saints looking out for us, start with Luke 16:19-31. It’s a brief glimpse, from Christ Himself, into the workings of the spiritual world:
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
It’s admittedly pretty confusing. The elements we see are:
- The rich man, who we’re told is in torment in Hades. This is either Hell or a purgative state of some kind.
- He is praying. This raises some theological questions, since he seems to be showing charity. That might discount Hell as a possibility — can the damned in Hell show charity?
- He’s praying to Abraham, and calling him “Father Abraham” (Luke 16:24). Abraham responds by calling him “son” (Luke 16:25).
- To his first request, Abraham both denies it (Luke 16:25), and says he can’t do it because of the chasm (Luke 16:26). In contrast, to the second request, he simply refuses (Luke 16:29, Luke 16:31). There’s no indication that he’s unable to fulfill this request, or that some chasm separates the Saints in Heaven from those on Earth.
At no point in the account is there even a hint that Christ thinks that praying to Abraham is wrong. And the rich man isn’t just praying that Abraham will ask God for something. He’s praying that Abraham will raise a man from the dead.
This is precisely the sort of thing that Protestants claim is idolatry if Catholics do it, but Christ presents it without (as far as I can see) a hint of condemnation of the practice. There are limits on what Abraham can do himself, certainly, but it’s not presented as bad to ask.
Obviously, this is presented as a parable, so it’s not necessarily historical. That said, there are some questions about whether or not it’s a parable based upon real life. It features someone named Lazarus (Lk. 16:20), and the rich man asks Abraham to restore him to life (Luke 16:27-31). Abraham refuses. But we hear from John’s Gospel, that Jesus’ friend Lazarus dies and is restored to life by Christ (John 11). It could be a coincidence, or it could be Jesus showing the superiority of the New Covenant over the Old. If it’s the latter, it may well be that the parable of Luke 16 actually occurred.
That’s not necessary to believe, of course. Even if the account really was just a parable, though, we would expect that Christ wouldn’t include bad theology and idolatry in a parable, without some hint that this is what not to do. Here, the thing that gets condemned is how the rich man lived during his lifetime, not his postmortem prayers.