It would seem that praying to God directly and praying through intermediaries are diametrically opposed. Christ is unequivocal in his teaching: I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one can come to the Father except through me. (Jn14:6) Our only pass to God is in and through Christ. St Paul himself makes this quite explicit when he says, “God wills 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 the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all. (1 Tim 3-6) Christ is the only mediator. But how do we go to Christ? Christ tells us we can go to the father through him. How do we go to Christ himself?
Christ himself admits of an indirect route to reach him when he says: whatsoever you do to the least of these brothers of mine, you do unto me. It becomes clear that through others we meet Christ. John so eloquently enunciates this principle when he says: If anyone says ‘I love God’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. (1 Jn 4:20) Through acts of charity and kindness to neighbor, we touch and meet God.
It seems relevant at this point to lay down an important principle, which if not properly understood only fuels the debate further. The difference between “Praying to” and “praying through” is crucial. We pray to God and to Him alone. Yet nothing precludes us from praying to God through the saints and through Mary. Yet one must say that there is nothing wrong with praying to saints, if correctly understood. We pray to them and ask for their intercession. They are in God’s company and have found fervor with God.
Is this not just a linguistic nuance that fails to capture what actually happens? In most Catholic churches, there are statues of saints and of Mary. Candles are often lit and people are seen praying in front of these statues. How else could one describe these if not as sublime acts of worship? Recently, did we not see/hear the relics of saints traveling the world? Is this not the apogee of idolatry?
As a starting point to answer these, it suffices to highlight here the difference between worshipping which is the proper action of man to God and honoring which we accord the saints.
The Mediating Role of the Saints
Saints in the Catholic Tradition are holy men and women who walked this earth, faced similar challenges and temptations like us, overcoming these and witnessing to their faith. There are many saints who have not been so declared by the Church. They are not Saints because the Church declares them but because they are saints the Church recognizes them as such.
Our devotion to saints draws from our understanding of life after death. If one believes in nihilism, the doctrine that there is nothing beyond this life or rather death brings to an end everything, then this “cult” of the saints would make no sense. But if one believes in the resurrection of the dead, then one may only be in an unfortunate psychological state of denial to refuse the doctrine of communion of saints.
For Christians of the Sola Scriptura tradition – Bible only – let me use the example of the good thief, one of those unnamed figures in the bible. Christ tells him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (Lk.23:43) Having come to know Christ, could this man not be the patron saint of all thieves. Through him, thieves could ask for his intercession for their conversion.
In crafting a scriptural foundation for why we should pray for saints, the passage in John’s Gospel came to my mind where Christ says, “In my Father’s house, there are many mansions. I am going to prepare a place so that where I am you too may follow.” (Jn. 14:2) Saints have arrived and are in the company of Jesus and so can plead the cause of those of us still on this earthly pilgrimage.
The Church’s teaching on the role of the saints is captured in the Preface for the Saints said during mass. It reads:
You renew the Church in every age by raising up men and women outstanding in holiness, living witnesses of Your unchanging love. They inspire us by their heroic lives, and help us by their constant prayers to be the living sign of Your saving power.” Saints are models; they are signposts pointing to Christ. Their lives are an inspiration above all, they pray for and with us.
I would like to borrow a leaf from pop culture and to describe saints as celebrities. It would be fun to think of canonization as a form of a Grammy award. For every journalist, it is like winning a Pulitzer. In the academic world, it is about a Nobel Prize; for music and film, it is about an Oscar or a Grammy. For the Christian, it is about sainthood. And like the song goes: Marvin Gay, you’re gone but your spirit lives on. We name our children after celebrities not just to remind ourselves of these but also in the pious hope that the example of these may inspire the named and s/he may soar to such heights and even scale them.
At the Transfiguration, the apostles had the rare privilege of meeting the prophet Elijah and Moses. To drive home the point, let us use the example of St Paul whose trajectory kicked off with a virulent persecution of the Christians Then he received the light and the scales fell off his eyes. In Paul we find the epitome of those who attack Catholicism. Would it not be proper to pray to Paul to plead for us to receive similar graces that light to shine on us that we may discover the Truth. St Paul is patron saint of those who passionately persecute the Church that they may receive God’s grace not only to stop attacking the Church but to become its defender.
The Pascalian wager is as always handy here and I dare say it is better to err on the side of excess than on the side of shortage. It is better to believe in the mediating role of saints and die and to discover that I was mistaken than to believe otherwise and discover to utter shock its instrumentality.
Not only do those in heaven pray with us, they also pray for us. In the book of Revelation, we read: “[An] angel came and stood at the altar [in heaven] with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God” (Rev. 8:3-4).
the twenty-four elders [the leaders of the people of God in heaven] fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev. 5:8).
The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen once wrote: There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Roman Catholic Church; there are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church.