The Saints: Prayers of The Righteous

Posted: September 3, 2012 in Catholic Worship, Mary, Prayer, Saints
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No discussion of Catholic teachings and practices would be compete without mentioning saints.

20120903-175220.jpgFive hundred years removed from the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, the Saints of the church are the subject of mass confusion, false accusations, and charges of paganism and polytheism against the Catholic faithful.

What Saints Aren’t

Perhaps the best place to start, then, is to talk a little about who the saints aren’t. They are not demons. They are not lesser gods. They are not subjects of worship or adoration. And they most certainly are not unbiblical or unorthodox.

So What is a Saint

So who exactly are these saints, then? The word “saint” is a shortened and transliterated form of “sanctified,” which means “set apart.” In English, as in other languages, we understand this to mean a holy person. In our Christian understanding, anyone who is in Christ is a saint.

Saints are all around us; our family, our friends, the people with whom we worship. If they are truly in Christ, then they are bound for heaven and are therefore a saint in the sense that they are a faithful believer. On this point, almost all Christians agree.

The Catholic Church, of course, makes a distinction between the “small ‘s’ saints” and the “big ‘S’ Saints,” which is when the accusations begin to fly. In Catholic understanding, Saints are those who are, in fact, in Heaven with God. They have obtained their reward and are now and forever sanctified with Him. So a very short and crude explanation of who a Saint with a big ‘S’ is simply someone who is in Heaven.

Now, what of the Catholic teaching on these Saints, and why does the church make a distinction in the first place? Again, a crude and rudimentary explanation would be that they are the members of the Christian Hall of Fame. The Saints are those brave and holy men and women who gave their entire lives to God, many after profound conversion experiences.

Amazing People, Amazing Lives

They dedicated their lives to worshiping and preaching, serving the Lord and helping bring others to Him. They are held up as examples for the rest of us to follow, proofs that, through the Grace of God we all can be made holy in Him. In short, the Church holds them out to us as road maps to Christ because if they’re not in Heaven, it’s hard to conceive that anyone is.

Even a quick internet search of Saints will reveal some truly remarkable people. Among their ranks are, of course, Peter, Paul and the other Apostles; Saint Steven, the first martyr; Saint Augustine of Hippo, who left a sinful and torrid life to become a giant of the church; Saint Augustine’s mother, Monica, the wife of an abusive and unfaithful husband who prayed daily that her son would become a Christian; or Saint Maximilion Kolbe, who founded missions to Japan, sheltered Jews in his friary in Poland, was sent to the concentration camp in Auschwitz and who volunteered to die of starvation in place of a fellow prisoner.

Throughout the history of the Christian church, the Saints have represented the best, brightest and holiest of all of us. They set the examples of who we should be and how we, as Christians, should behave.

Showing Us How To Live for God

They teach us that every moment of every day, we have an opportunity to truly serve God in a very deep and very real sense. Yet somehow, someway, there are members of some Protestant and fundamentalists groups who would have us believe that paying these amazing people any attention or any homage is wrong, even evil, in the eyes of God.

Worshipping God Alone

Let us make one thing absolutely clear from the start: Catholics do not give any honor to the saints, or anyone or anything else, for that matter, that is otherwise due to God. There is only one God, who exists as One in Three Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We give glory and praise and adoration only to Him and to no one else.

We do, however, honor the Saints of the church. We set aside days for them and remember their lives at daily Mass. We read books about them and by them. Some people develop devotions to them. None of these are actions that take away anything from God but instead help to keep our eyes on our Heavenly prize.

Leading By Example

Men who hope to be better fathers and husbands can consider the life of Saint Joseph, who had the awesome responsibility of raising the boy Jesus. Women who want to be the mothers God wants them to be can look to the life of the Blessed Mother, Mary, who always points us to her Son and reminds us to do whatever He tells us.

In every century, there have been people who have shown us how to be the very best we can be. These are the people the Church holds out to us as the example of true Christian living. They are truly amazing people who have answered God’s call to follow Him and who have received the eternal reward.

Movie Stars, Sports Figures, or Saints?

Somewhat ironically, protestants never seem to to have a problem with honoring secular people and institutions; you never hear anyone rail against the “satanic” Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, for example. No one takes issue with the Lincoln Memorial or the Washington Monument. We have entire amusement parks dedicated to fictional characters and worlds. We spend billions of dollars each year on movies and books that don’t bring us any closer to God. We go to sporting events and proudly wear clothing with our favorite players’ names prominently displayed. If this is not honor, than I don’t know what honor is.

For some reason, it is perfectly acceptable to give honor to those people whose lives tell us nothing about God or how to be a good Christian. Yet the moment we choose to recognize those who sought to give their entire lives to God, that’s where so many otherwise good and Godly people take issue. Ask yourself honestly, if we are all called to be holy, does this make any sense? Shouldn’t we always be keeping our focus on God and those who point us to Him?

Honoring To Whom Honor is Due

An important question, then, is raised by the Catholic practice of honoring the Saints: is it right to give honor to man, or should we give honor only to God? For answers, let’s turn to scripture.

First and foremost, of course, we all have been issue a commandment to honor our mother and father. Beyond that, however, we are also told to hold righteous people in high regard and to give honor where honor is due. God required special vestments to be made for Aaron as high priest, for glory and beauty or, in some translations, for honor. (Exodus 28:2) In the new Testament, Saint Paul exhorts us to “Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. (Romans 13:7 NASB)” Obviously, then it is okay to give honor to those who are worthy of it. In fact, we are required to honor certain people, chief among them those people who God has placed in positions of both religious and secular authority and those who are deemed righteous.

Praying to Saints

Honoring the Saints is one thing. Praying to them, though, is something else entirely. What then of the Catholic practice of praying to the Saints? Is this unbiblical, evil or wrong in the eyes of God? Are we taking anything away from God by ascribing powers and honor reserved for Him to human beings? Absolutely not!

First of all, let’s talk about prayer. What is prayer? In the Protestant understanding, prayer is often synonymous with worship. Prayer and worship, in Catholic understanding, are not the same. Proper worship is reserved only for God. Prayer, however, is simply a request, and requests can be made to anyone for anything. Think about it. We ask our friends and family here on Earth to help us all the time. We ask for assistance moving. We ask for help with finances. We ask for advice, jobs, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Shouldn’t we reserve these requests only for God? Of course not, and no Christian would argue that we should. When we pray to Saints, we make a request for help of some kind.

But wait! Can’t we just go to God with our prayers? Of course we can take our prayers directly to God. In fact, the Bible says there is one mediator between God and man, and that is His son, the man Jesus Christ (1Timothy 2:5). Catholics believe this whole heartedly. How, then, can Catholics ask Saints to intercede for them when scripture is clear that the only way to God is through Christ?

Something that all Christians do for each other is pray. We ask our fellow Christians to pray for us all the time. Take a moment to look at your church bulletin. I’m going to take a risk here and guess that there is a section reserved for prayer requests. We pray for each other because we believe prayer works; otherwise it would be a wasted effort. And we ask others to pray for us because we intuitively know that the more people praying for us, the better. No one would object if I asked them to pray for me if I was going through a hard time with something, and most would gladly go to God on my behalf.

Protestants often cite 1Timothy 2:5, which states that Christ is the only mediator between God and man, to object to the Catholic practice of partying to Saints. In so doing, though, they completely ignore the very first verse of the chapter (italics mine): “First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men…” (1 Timothy 2:1 NASB). Throughout Saint Paul’s epistles, he exhorts his readers to pray for him, and tells them he is doing the same fort them. If Christ is the only mediator between God and man, why does Paul urge us to offer prayers on behalf of all men? Aren’t we interceding between man and God by praying for others? Obviously, it is okay both to pray for others and to ask for prayer, and the unbiblical position to take would be to assert that we should not intercede on each other’s behalf.

Contacting the Dead?

If it is okay to ask our Christian brothers and sisters on here on Earth for prayers, why would it not be acceptable to ask those who have gone before us to also pray for us? I have read and heard several “Bible- believing” Christians object to the practice of praying to Saints based upon Biblical prohibitions against consorting with the dead, sorcery and mediums. Ironically, some of these same people speak with wonder of some famous television mediums. In actuality though, ask a Catholic who prays to Saints whether or not they are communicating with the dead or contacting spirits from the netherworld. Of course they are not!

Jesus reveals to us something very important about God: “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living…” (Mark 12:27 NASB). If Saints are by definition those Christians who have died and gone to Heaven, and thus are alive with, in and through God, then praying to them cannot be the same as attempting to contact the dead!

Can Saints Hear Our Prayer?

Thus far, I’ve proposed that it’s okay to ask others to intercede through prayer on our behalf, and that praying to someone we know through the teaching of the church to be in heaven does not conflict with the prohibition against contacting the dead. Another important question remains. Saints are created beings, like you and I. The Catholic understanding would include angels in the definition of Saints because they, too, are in heaven and in the presence of God.

If Saints are created and not eternal, or omniscient, how can they possibly hear our prayers? The short and honest answer is that I don’t know for certain how or why this is possible. I would also say, though, that it would be foolish to limit God’s power by insisting that it’s impossible.

Scripture again gives us a hint of how Saints may be able hear our prayers. The Bible suggests that God desires to make us holy, telling us “For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust.” (2 Peter 1:4 NASB).

Moreover, the Apostle John writes “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.” (1 John 3:2, 3 NASB)

The implication here is that when we are made holy and go to be with God, we are made like Him and we participate in His divine nature. Do not misunderstand; I am not suggesting we become God or even like gods. However, when we go to be with Him, we are taken into His body and enjoy the fullness of His love and His life. We participate in His immense Holiness. In so doing, we may know more than we do now because we are really and truly bound to Him. This is not to say that Saints have any powers or abilities outside of Him, or at all for that matter. It is merely to suggest, to put it simply, that those in heaven with Him have access we do not have on earth.

The Prayers of a Righteous Man

Are prayers to the Saints efficacious? Do they do any good? Or should we just take our prayers to God and be done? The Apostle James seems to think so; he tells us that the prayers of a righteous man accomplish much (James 5:16) There are no men more righteous than those in heaven!

Revelations, also, gives us a picture of those in Heaven taking the prayers of those on Earth and raising them up to God: “When He had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” (Revelation 5:8 NASB)

Loved Ones Smiling Down on Us

How many times have you heard it said that someone’s recently deceased loved one is looking down from Heaven, watching over them? You’ve probably even said it yourself. If you can bring yourself to acknowledge that your loved ones in Heaven (who are, by definition, Saints) are aware of what’s happening to you, then there should be no reason to think that the Saints in Heaven are separated from the rest of Christ’s Body on Earth.

Pray for Me, Pray for You

Understand, prayer is not the same as worship or adoration. It is a request, an entreaty. In every day life, we make requests of each other all the time. We recognize that those who have gone before us in heaven are close to God and are united to us as part of the Body of Christ, His church. We are all one, together with Him, and as such we can all pray for one another. When we pray to Saints, we are asking them to pray with us and for us. There is nothing more Christian than this! Let us ray for one another that we, too, will one day reach our Heavenly reward and join so great a cloud of witnesses!

Image courtesy Christina Rutz via Creative Commons

  1. SR says:

    This I have to say is one of the best explanations I have read. We honor “men” on Veterans Day, those dead and alive who have fought and died for this country. A whole day is set aside for them. God honored Abraham calling Him, “A father of many nations.” Moses He said, “There will never be another prophet like Moses.” David, God called, “A man after His own heart.” God always honored those He felt were worthy of such honor. Again, there are many holidays set aside in this nation, honoring those who have since died, but are worth the honor. If people would only stop and think about that a moment, maybe they would see things in a different light. Good post and God Bless, SR

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