Sunday, July 11, 2010

On the Intercession of the Saints

Recently I had a friend ask me some very pointed questions regarding Catholicism, giving me ideas on what to write about when doing apologetics.  I really liked these questions, as they were rarely of the strict "boilerplate" mentality.  I liked them so much, I'm going to be devoting time to answering as many of the questions here as I can.  Today, I will deal with questions he posed regarding the intercession of the saints.  They are as follows:

  • Aren't the canonized saints in Catholicism simply stand-ins for the western pagan pantheons, the same way they are in Voodoo?  Isn't "Patron Saint" just a syncretized way of saying "god of"?
  • Is the popular depiction of Catholics praying to the saints accurate?  If so, why do you pray to dead people when you can be praying to God himself?
  • Why does catholic tradition seem to so broadly ignore the idea that "God is no respecter of persons"?  (This ties back with the idea of praying to saints, in that you'd be asking a dead guy to intervene on your behalf with God.  If God is genuinely evenhanded with ALL humanity, this would be a waste of time, at best, and a violation of the first commandment, at worst). 
I would like to start out by outlining the basic concept of the Catholic teaching of the Intercession of the Saints, and then move onto the specific questions.

What is a Saint?

I believe there is a common misconception in Protestant circles by exactly what we mean when we say "Saint."  Whenever people think of saints, they think of typically those prominent Christians throughout the years whom we attach "Saint" at the beginning of their name.  This is certainly true, but does not tell the whole story.  

These individuals are those the Church decrees worthy of special recognition.  They are those heroes worthy of remembrance.  When we think back on great figures of history, we are often inspired by their great deeds.  This is no different for the canonized saints.  We remember their love of God, and we strive to do the same.  The entire 11th chapter of Hebrews is filled with such examples of those heroes.

Yet the meaning of saint is far more expansive than simply those few individuals throughout human history.  "Saints" refer to all Christians.  Paul frequently reminds us that we are the saints, those chosen by God.  We are called to be saints, each and every one of us.  Great holiness is not the privilege of some cloister or monastery. 

So when we ultimately speak of the intercession of the saints, we speak of the manner in which all Christians pray for each other.  We base this off the First Epistle of Saint Paul to Timothy:

I desire therefore, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for all men:  For kings and for all that are in high station: that we may lead a quiet and a peaceable life in all piety and chastity.  For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who will have all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  For there is one God: and one mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus:  Who gave himself a redemption for all, a testimony in due times...
 So far, Catholics and Protestants agree that we should pray for each other.  The Protestant objects that we err when we ask "dead people" to pray as well.

At this point, another misconception needs to be cleared up.  If one notices, I have not used the phrase "praying to the saints."  While from a certain standpoint true, it's incredibly misleading in modern language.  Prayer is equated with an act of worship of the One True God.  If that is the case, we most certainly do not pray to the saints.  To do so would be absolutely idolatry.  The saints in heaven cannot "grant" something if we ask for their prayers.  All they can do is the same thing the Christians on earth do, pray to the Father that God grants these things for us.

So the question is, as my friend put it "why ask a bunch of dead guys to pray for you?"  We must remember that:

And concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read that which was spoken by God, saying to you:  I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.  (Matthew 22:31-32)
 We have to let that sink in.  Nobody is truly "dead" when they are in Christ.  Those in heaven are supremely aware of the affairs of men on earth.  The Apocalypse of Saint John teaches that the martyrs in heaven cry out every second of the day for vengeance against the devil in slaying the saints on Earth.  The Transfiguration of Our Lord in John's Gospel shows Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah.  Elijah was taken to heaven centuries before Christ came to this earth in human flesh, and Moses was long dead even in Elijah's time.  What were they doing?  No doubt they were talking about our salvation and Christ's mission on Earth.  If there were any doubt about the "dead" in their understanding of our activities on Earth, there can be none now.

Yet do they intercede for us?  I guess we must pose a counter question:  Do Christians stop being Christians when they die?  If they are indeed still in Christ and perfected, would that not include the command to "pray for one another" being followed perfectly?  Yet I think there is further evidence from the Scriptures for this concept when we turn to the writings of the Prophet Jeremiah:

And the Lord said to me: If Moses and Samuel shall stand before me, my soul is not towards this people: cast them out from my sight, and let them go forth.  (Jeremiah 15:1)
 When we read this verse, we need to think of the context.  Jeremiah was a prophet in Judah for the latter years of her Kingdom.  By the time this verse occurs, Judah has slid almost entirely back into apostasy.  They have forsaken the reforms of the righteous King Josiah (of whom Jeremiah was one of his greatest champions) and began worshiping false gods again.  In many ways, they were even worse than so many of the previous wicked Kings, because they knew the truth, and willingly rejected it.

The covenant God made with them at this point was broken.  Since the people did not follow the precepts of the covenant, rather than blessing, they would receive the curse, in the case, the destruction of their beloved Jerusalem and their enslavement by the Babylonians.  This is the context of this verse.  After establishing this grave wickedness, God proclaims that even if Moses and Samuel interceded for the people, God would not spare them their fate.  Note well that God does not say "If a Moses" or "a Samuel" would stand before Him.  He is referring to Moses and Samuel, the very same as the great heroes of the Old Covenant, and the famed intercessors of Israel before God.

Would this not imply that under different circumstances, God would hear their pleas?  What if the people were not idolaters, but righteous souls redeemed by the Blood of the Lamb?  We know from St. James "the prayer of the righteous man availeth much."  Are these not righteous souls?  We see that they are clearly aware of what is going on, and that the righteous are depicted as interceding before God.  Why not ask them?  We know from the Scriptures, for example, that St. Michael the Archangel is the defender of all God's elect.  St. Michael does battle with the devil as he attempts to destroy the souls of men on Earth.  Knowing that we have such a powerful champion, should we not ask his aid?  Should we not ask for him to plead with the Father for our sake?

The only thing we Catholics should worry about is that we not develop a sense of spiritual laziness in our prayer.   Just because we have a powerful saint interceding for us, this does not excuse us from praying to the Father as well.  Rather, we wish to unite our prayers to that particular saint.  The Protestant may counter "Why not just pray to Jesus yourself?"  At this point, we must ask, do we Christians really do anything alone in our spiritual lives?  Are they not part of Christ's body?  Can we say "I have no need of you" like a hand would say to the feet, as St. Paul mentions in Corinthians?  Of course not.  We go to God with our prayers, but we are never alone.  We know from the Apocalypse that the 24 elders carry the prayers of the saints to the Father.  (Consistent with this in the Catholic tradition is the Book of Tobit, when the Archangel Raphael states he carried Tobias and Sarah's prayers to God.)  The Gospel allows no such boasting of independence, as if we do not need the prayers of others.

Having established the basis of the intercession of those in Heaven, we come to the other questions asked.  Why do we have "patron saints?"  Do they really answer prayers more effectively than the other saints in heaven?  From a strict standpoint, the answer would have to be in the negative.  All the saints in Heaven are perfect, removed of any stain of sin.  As a result, even the prayer of the most unknown of saints in heaven would have equal efficacy as the greatest saint.  So why do we ask for particular saints to pray for us?

I submit that it is for our benefit we mention those names.  When we invoke those saints, we should ponder their lives, and the particular causes they have come to represent.  When Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed St. John-Marie Vianney as the patron of priests, he wanted the Church to reflect on the priestly service and mission of the great Cure d'Ars.  By placing them over this specific cause, we develop a devotion not only to the particular saint, but most importantly, the virtues he championed.  When we invoke the protection of St. Michael, we call to mind his eternal service in defense of God's people, and that we may join him in that battle.  We call to mind his famous statement:  May the LORD rebuke you!  We remember that like St. Michael, we do nothing on our own power, instead relying on the supreme power of the Father in Heaven to conquer and defeat the devil.

When we call this to mind, it is clear that these are not pagan iterations.  St. Vianney is not the "god" of priests.  He has no direct control over something, as a deity would, and as the pagans believed their deities did.  Rather, those patrons were champions of the causes they now represent.  Most importantly, they are champions of humility in recognizing God's supreme dominion over everything.  Far from taking the credit themselves, they point us to God.  Through their intercession and pondering their lives may we always remain close to the Father whom they championed.


  1. Very well put together. You've certainly got a gift for this sort of thing.

  2. I would question (if not highly doubt) the notion that all saints in Heaven intercede with equal efficacy, even if each of their prayers are of the purest intentions. This, for one, would plainly undermine the notion that the Blessed Virgin is the most powerful and efficacious intercessor. Secondly, it would miss the fact there are different degrees of glory in Heaven, proportional to the good one did on earth and graces received. The more grace and good works, the greater the capacity to experience God, and thus the greater efficacy in intercession.

    While all saints in Heaven experience God fully, not all do so equally. If each man is a cup, those who lived more 'saintly' lives effectively grow the size of their cup. In heaven, each cup is full to the brim, but not each cup experiences God in the same capacity.

    Lastly, one reason why God doesn't answer prayers initially is because a person is not as holy as another, and thus the less holy the more prayer they have to say in proportion. This directly conforms to your claim from St James chapter 5, "the prayer of a righteous man" is efficacious.

    I forgot about Tobit interceding the way you explain, so that is a very good lesson for me. It reminds me of another example many have pointed out Mat 18:10 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." So their 'guardian angels' are in a real sense interceding for them. And as you said, the very notion of God using angels implies God can use intermediaries rather than interact directly with men.

  3. Hello Nick,

    I'll actually be drawing up a new response (since you touch upon the treasury of merit here) but I'd like to draw on a few historical precedents to attempt to demonstrate why I wrote what I did.

    Let us take the issue of the saints in regards to protecting and leading the Church against God's enemies, and interceding for them. We know historically in the West, this role was attributed to Saint Michael (in the East, they focused more on the defending aspect via healing, but that is neither here nor there) as we say "St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle"

    Yet we also know that at different points, other saints were called upon. In Iberia, the kingdom of Castille called upon the patronage and intercession of Saint James to drive the Muslims out of Spain in the Reconquista. (In certain areas of Spain, statues depicting St. James as a great warrior smashing the Emirate of Cordoba still stand.)

    Even later still, we have the battle of Lepanto, which Pope St. Pius V and the commanders of the Catholic forces sought the intercession of Mary to defeat the Ottomans. Did the earlier examples "pick the wrong saint?" Or was it a devotion on the individual to those virtues the saints displayed, regional patronage, etc?

  4. I think we might be addressing two different issues here.

    I wouldn't say St James or St Michael are above the Blessed Virgin in terms of intercession. In the case of a "patron saint," they are such because they're known for being good in certain areas of our life. As you know, this can come from a variety of reasons, such as the saint living in that land or the saint being known for a certain type of good work. I'd say intercession in a patron's "area of expertise" need not necessarily correspond to their level of glory.


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