When I was a Protestant, I pitied Catholics because I thought they could not or would not pray directly to God. I don’t know why I thought that or where I heard it, but I, like many of my friends, believed that Catholics only prayed to Mary and to the saints. Of course, I was utterly mistaken.
Now I not only know what the Church really teaches, but I also know and love many saints. This has been a tremendous blessing in my life. So, since it is November, and today we celebrated All Saints Day, I thought I’d take a minute to talk about what Catholics really believe about the saints…
A saint is someone who is in Heaven. We can think of the saints in two ways. There are those holy men and women who have been recognized for their close walk with the Lord and for living lives of heroic virtue. These are the canonized saints, like Saint Peter and Saint Paul. There are hundreds of canonized saints – men and women dating all the way back to the time of Jesus,like the disciples and even 20th century saints, like Saint John Paul the Great or Saint Padre Pio. But there are hundreds more saints who have never been officially canonized, whose holiness might be known only to God. These are ordinary men and women who lived lives of quiet, humble service to the Lord. They are no less saintly than the martyrs and missionaries of the past.
We see the saints as our elder brothers and sisters in Christ. Most Catholics have a patron saint and/or a few favorites saints. We choose or are attracted to saints because we identify with them or because we are particularly inspired by them. I am drawn to Saint Francis de Sales because he is the patron saint of writers, but also because I find his writings to be a great encouragement in my attempt to be holy in the regular ordinariness of my days. I also like Saint Monica because she basically hounded her son, Saint Augustine, into turning from his wild ways and to converting to Christianity.
I tend to be less drawn to saints who lived lives of extraordinary hardship and suffering. I like married saints and saints who died of old age. I’m sure that says a lot about my own fears and frailties, but I like knowing you can become a saint without dying young or wearing shirts made out of horse hair.
Whatever draws someone to a saint, it’s nice to have someone in the faith to look up to. We read about our favorite saints and try to live by their example, and yes we pray to them. But it’s not what you might think…
Catholics pray to the saints – sort of. We do not pray to the saints instead of to God. We pray first and foremost to God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We don’t even actually pray to the saints in the strict sense of the word. What we are actually doing, when we say we pray to a saint, is merely asking that saint to pray for us. We ask our older brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for us in the same way we would ask a beloved friend or family member here on earth to pray for us. No one would ever say, “Why do you ask your sister to pray for you when you’re sick. She’s not God. She can’t heal you.” True. Neither can the saints heal us. But the Bible tells us that the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective (James 5:16). So why wouldn’t we ask the saints to pray for us?
Some people question whether or not the saints can hear us. Hebrews 12:1 reminds that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. It doesn’t make sense that this great cloud of saints in Heaven would surround us, cheer us on toward our goal of Heaven, and yet not hear us when we ask for their help. Asking a saint to pray for us takes nothing from God any more than asking our earthly friends to pray for us does. We are all God’s family.
There is a saint for EVERYTHING! Do you have a fear of caterpillars? Saint Magnus will pray for you. Are you a spelunker? Consider striking up a friendship with Saint Benedict of Nursia. Are you unattractive? Maybe Saint Drogo can help. Suffering from a hangover? Saint Bibiana is your gal. And if you are a pig farmer, Saint Malo is there for you.
I’ve heard it argued that having patron saints for everything is pagan – just like the Greeks and Romans and other ancient cultures that had gods and goddesses for everything. But Christians aren’t in the habit doing away with those aspects of our faith that resemble the stories and practices of other ancient religions. Otherwise we would have to give up on the flood of Noah, the Virgin Birth, and having a savior whose father is God. It is true that there are some vague similarities between some aspects of Christianity and those of some pagan religions. But Christianity (and Catholicism in particular) are the fullness of God’s truth. Anything else is counterfeit or merely a shadow of the truth – and we needn’t be afraid of shadows. We are bathed in the light.
Jesus Christ is sufficient to meet all of our needs. As Christians we know this. But we also know that in His great wisdom and mercy, the Father has not asked us to walk alone on our journey to Heaven. He has given us each other. He has given us His Church. He has given us great heros and thinkers and humble examples. And thanks be to God, He has given us an enormous family with countless brothers and sisters to hold our hands and pray for us in this world and to stand before His throne and pray for us in Heaven.