Why Do Catholics Pray to Saints?

Saint Jerome in Prayer by Hieronymus Bosch by Stefano di Sant`AgneseSome criticize Catholics for praying to Saints, instead of directly to God.

Actually, Catholics usually pray directly to God, but can also ask the saints–anyone in Heaven–to pray to God on their behalf.

So, when one prays to a Saint he is basically asking the Saint to intercede for him–to pray for him and with him to God. All Christians do essentially the same thing when they ask fellow believers on earth to pray for them, though one would expect that the prayers of Saints to be more powerful because they stand fully sanctified in God’s presence (see The Letter of Saint James, 5:16).1

Jesus, after all, taught us that God “is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Luke 20:38). At the Transfiguration, He conversed with the long-deceased Elijah and Moses in the presence of the Apostles (Mark 9:3). He also promised the Good Thief (whom tradition calls Saint Dismas) that he would join Him in Paradise that very day (Luke 23:43).

In the New Testament, Jesus delivers a parable in which a man in Hades begs the intercession of a man in the Bosom of Abraham for his brothers on earth (Luke 16:19).

Jesus also speaks of the intercession of the angels, saying, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven” (see Matthew 18:10; the Book of Psalms 91:11-12; and the Book of Revelation 8:3-4).

In his Letter to the Colossians, Paul writes that believers on earth have been qualified by God “to share in the inheritance of the saints in light” (1:12).

The Letter to the Hebrews refers to the holy men and women of the Old Covenant as a great “cloud of witnesses” surrounding us in 12:1 and continues in verses 12:22 – 23 with,  “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalemand to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect.”

In the Book of Revelation, the holy martyrs stand before God, beseeching Him for justice on behalf of the persecuted on earth (6:9-11), and the Apostles and Prophets kneel before the throne of God in Heaven and offer the prayers of the earthly faithful to Him: “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (5:8, 4:4 and 20:4). (Note that the earthly faithful are often referred to in the New Testament as “saints.” This is not to suggest they have already been fully sanctified, but that they are in the process of being sanctified. For example, Paul admonishes the Ephesians, whom he earlier addresses as “the saints who are also faithful in Christ Jesus,” to turn away from their sinful behavior (see his Letter to the Ephesians, 1:1 and 4:22-23).)

In Christianity’s earliest historical writings we receive similar testimony. Pope Saint Clement (d. ca. 97), for example, counseled Christians to, “Follow the saints, for those who follow them will be sanctified” (Letter to the Corinthians 46:2; cf. Heb. 13:7).

In about the year 156, the faithful in Smyrna explained that they worshipped Jesus Christ, but loved the martyrs “as disciples and imitators of the Lord, as they deserve, on account of their matchless devotion to their own King and Teacher. May we also become their partners and fellow disciples!” (Martyrdom of Saint Polcycarp 17:3; ).

At the beginning of the third century, Saint Clement of Alexandria remarked how a true Christian “prays in the society of angels, as being already of angelic rank, and he is never out of their holy keeping; and though he pray alone, he has the choir of the saints standing with him” (Stromateis 7:12).

Prior to her death in the arena, Saint Perpetua (d. 203) recounted a vision of Heaven in which she met the souls of martyrs and witnessed angels and elders worshiping before the throne of God (see The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas 4:1-2). Origen wrote in 233, “It is not only the High Priest who prays with those who truly pray, but also the angels …, and also the souls of the saints who have passed away” (On Prayer 11:1). In 250, Saint Cyprian of Carthage described how the Eucharist was offered in honor of the martyrs on the anniversaries of their deaths (see Letter to His Clergy and to All His People 39:3).

Common Misconceptions

Still, the practice of praying to the Saints appears to Protestants to undermine the unique role of Jesus as the “one mediator between God and men” (see Paul’s First Letter to Timothy 2:5).

However, in calling Jesus our sole Mediator with God, Saint Paul is not referring to intercessory prayer, but to the Atonement. Because Jesus is both God and man, only His death had the power to reconcile us with the Father (see the succeeding verse in the same letter: 2:6). The intercession of the Saints, or the intercession of Christians on earth for that matter, does not interfere with Christ’s singular mediation before the Father, but draws upon it. Thus Paul, in the lines preceding verse 2:5, encourages Christians to engage in intercessory prayer, which “is good, and … is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior” (2:1 – 3).

The Saints are not obstacles to serving Jesus, but living examples the Lord has provided to teach us how to serve Him perfectly. As Mother Angelica, foundress of the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), plainly put it, “I am a Franciscan, which means I follow Jesus according to the example of the great Francis of Assisi” (with Christine Allison, Answers, Not Promises, Ignatius Press, 1996, p. 15).

So we ask: what father is not overjoyed to see his children honored? Is not honoring the child essentially a more profound way of honoring the father (see the Book of Proverbs 17:6)? The Church does not exalt the Saints for their own sakes, but for the sake of God Who created them, sanctified them, and raised them up before us.

It’s Prayer, not Worship!

Similarly, Protestants often mistake Catholic prayer to the Saints as worship. This comes from an incorrect notion that prayer and worship are synonymous.

While prayer is part of worship, in essence worship consists of the offering of a sacrifice (see Exodus 20:24, Malachi 1:11; and Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews 10:10).

Specifically, the Church offers the Sacrifice of the Eucharist to God—and to Him alone—at Holy Mass. By contrast, Catholics do not offer sacrifice to the Saints. In fact, it may surprise critics to know that the Church hierarchy censured a religious group in the fourth century for excesses regarding the Virgin Mary. Saint Epiphanius, the Bishop of Salamis, rebuked the sect known as the Kollyridians for offering sacrificial bread to her (Panárion 79). Reading this, some might erroneously conclude that Epiphanius must have generally disapproved of Marian devotion. To the contrary, however, Epiphanius enthusiastically promotes the Church’s teachings on Mary in the same work in which he rebukes the Kollyridians.

To distinguish between the worship of God and veneration of the Saints, Augustine borrowed from the Greek the terms latria and dulia, the former to describe the worship of God and the latter to describe veneration of the Saints (see The City of God 10:1).

We venerate the Saints because they have been sanctified by God.

  1.  It is commonly understood by all Christians that we are joined to one another through prayer (see Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans 12:5 and his First Letter to the Corinthians. 12:12).

    Like the human soul itself, this prayer-link survives death, for death is powerless “to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (again, see Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:38-39). Those who have died in friendship with God are not “asleep” in the grave, but rule with Him in Heaven.[1. The common biblical reference to the dead being “asleep” (see Matthew, 9:24, et al.) is simply a means of expressing death’s transient nature and has to do specifically with the body of the deceased, not the soul (Matthew 27:52). The body rests in the grave at death while the soul enters into eternity. At the Last Judgment, the body is resurrected and reunited with the soul. Because non-Catholic Christians tend to see the dead as sleeping, prayer to the Saints appears to them to be a form of necromancy (see the Book of Deuteronomy 18:10-11 and the First Book of Samuel, 28:6). But necromancy properly understood is the attempt to glean information from the dead which otherwise belongs to God alone, such as knowledge of the future. Prayer to the Saints, on the other hand, is merely seeking heavenly intercession.