Why do Catholics pray to Saints? Aren't all Christians Saints?

Catholics fully agree that Paul refers to living Christians as saints. All of us in the body of Christ are saints.

It would be easy to conclude that this is the only way to use the word "saint." However, long before the time of Christ, King David used the term "saint" while speaking to his fellow Jews, "Love the Lord all you his saints" (Psalm 31:23 NRSV and NIV). The KJB has over 80 instances of the word "saint" in the Old Testament that don't refer to "living Christians" (i.e., 1 Sam.2, 2 Chr.6:41, Job.5:1, Prov.2:8, Dan.7:18, 21, Hos 11:12).

Even Paul sometimes gives the word a distinct meaning: "believers and saints" (Acts 9:32 ), "to the saints and faithful brothers" (Col 1:2). The term is used in a variety of contexts throughout the Bible. The word "saint" simply means "holy one" or "sanctified" (Sanctus). It could be a Jew of the Old Testament, a Christian of the New Testament, a faithful Christian living today, or a Christian in Heaven.

Canonized Saints

When Catholics say the word saint, they are usually talking about a specific kind of saint, a canonized saint. Catholics should probably be more explicit so as not to cause confusion.

The Church recognizes some Christians (saints) that have endured, entered Heaven and won the crown, and while there, have proven to be serious prayer warriors for us on earth. The Church must be convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that the saint is in heaven. This is why they go through so much scrutiny over each and every saint. When they canonize someone they are really saying: "Hey, this person had a very cool relationship to the Lord while on earth and now they are in heaven and are really praying hard for us."

Any evangelical could look at people who have been canonized by the Catholic Church and say, "yeah, that person is in heaven. That's a good choice."

"Indeed, the Saints have ever been, are, and ever will be the greatest benefactors of society, and perfect models for every class and profession, for every state and condition of life, from the simple and uncultured peasant to the master of sciences and letters, from the humble artisan to the commander of armies, from the father of a family to the ruler of peoples and nations, from simple maidens and matrons of the domestic hearth to queens and empresses."

- Pope Pius XI (1922 - 1939), Divinus Illius Magistri, par. 99.

Is calling a saint "holy" blasphemous?

In 2011, I (Hugh) got married to Diane, and began reading a fantastic Evangelical book called "Love Dare" by the makers of the hit movie "Fireproof" about how to make a great marriage. On page 72 they describe the word "holy" as it applies to your spouse.

There is another word that calls us to a higher place, a word that isn’t often equated with marriage, though its relevance cannot be underestimated… To say your mate should be “holy” to you doesn’t mean that he or she is perfect. Holiness means set aside for a higher purpose, no longer common or everyday but special and unique… sacred to you, a person to be honored, praised and defended. (Love Dare, pg. 72)

Canonized Saints were not perfect human beings when they walked on earth. However, they were "set aside for a higher purpose, no longer common or everyday but special and unique" because of their response of obedience and faith to God's call on their lives.

Saints are kind of like university alumni

Saints are sort of like graduates. I (Hugh) graduated from the University of Ottawa. Now I am an Alumni. That means I'm still active with the university but in a different capacity. I am there to support the university now. I could sit on councils and contribute in many ways. There is an obligation to help in some way. I'm not a director. I don't make decisions. I'm not the Dean. I'm just a graduate - an Alumni.

Think about Christians in heaven as alumni to the Church. They pray for it. They help out. They help where they can. They don't make decisions for God. They are not the "Dean" of heaven. They are just servants who've successfully graduated this school of life. They successfully abandoned themselves to Jesus and helped many others do that too. Now they can help us graduate through their prayer and their example. An Evangelical friend of mine, Jeff Lutes, who runs a Christian radio station in Halifax, Canada, was so impressed by the ancient Catholic spiritual masters who prayed in monasteries and that he wrote a book about them. He attributes much of the growth of the Church to their prayers. The book is in PDF format for free download here.

Isn't there only one mediator between God and man?

We got an email that said:

Christ is the one and only mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 8:6; 9:15; 12:24)...It can not be made any clearer in the scriptures that God wants to communicate with us directly, and to be cautious of those who try to step in to mediate.

1 Timothy 2 does not say that God wants us only to communicate with Jesus. It says there is only one mediator between God and man, which is a different thing. The passage does not say we should be cautious of asking people to pray for us. It doesn't do anything of the sort. The chapter begins requiring intercessory prayer by third parties, indicating that it actually helps bring people to salvation and knowledge of truth. Any mother who prays for her children knows that.

"I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone ...This is good, and pleases God our Savior ....who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth."

We cannot read the rest of the chapter without considering that overarching idea. Christians in heaven pray through Christ much better than you and me. They are much closer to Christ than you and me. Evangelicals pray for each other, and they don't say they are taking God's place. When we pray for one another we are participating in the mediation, we are not the mediator. Catholics feel that saints in heaven, including Mary, can pray for us just as well (or infinitely better) than our friends on earth.

In Hebrews 8:6, it says Jesus has obtained a more excellent ministry than any of the high priests. In 9:15 and 12:24 the passage goes on to say He is the mediator of a New Covenant, Catholics fully agree. We fully agree He is the mediator. We think Christians in heaven are a heck of a lot more aware of who Christ is than we are. The Bible says that He has helpers that participate in his ministry by his invitation. We believe He has invited Christians on both sides of heaven to do that.

When a saint enters into the joy of their Master, they are "put in charge of many things" (Mat 25:21).

Saints are serious prayer warriors. We don't think that praying with the Saints detracts from the worship of God anymore than praying with friends detracts from worship of God, which I do a lot. Saints are not all knowing, but they know a heck of a lot more about this spiritual game than me. They are creatures. This does not take away the tremendous benefit we can get from communing with them. Catholics think "their intercession is their most exalted service to God's plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world" (Catechism 2683).

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"I don't pray to dead people"

That is a slogan directed against Catholics that we hear a lot in Evangelical circles. The Catholic Church doesn't think heaven is a "dead" place. Catholics believe people in heaven are alive. (Mat 19:29, 25:46, Mat 10:17-22, Mk 10:30, Lk 10:25-30, Lk 18:18-30, Jn 3:15-16). We see Lazarus alive by Abraham's side (Lk 16:22). And at the transfiguration we see Moses and Elijah alive beside Jesus. (Mat 17:3) There seems to be a lot of conversing in Heaven (i.e. Rev 4:10). The Church thinks heaven is a lively place with lots of singing and celebration. Jesus opened the gates to Heaven. "Graves were opened." (Mat 27:52). Jesus said, "Now he is a God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive." (Lk 20:39-40)

Requests for intercession of saints is as old as Christianity itself. It is not a construct of the Middle Ages. I visited the Catacombs, just outside of Rome. It was an amazing experience. I felt a strong connection with the early Christians who left a written record on the walls of the Catacombs as a testimony of their beliefs. I came upon a wall of hundreds of inscriptions asking the martyred Peter and Paul to pray for them. It was very moving.

catacomb interci

Photo: Catacomb of St. Sabastiano: Fragments of a wall plaster from the triclia with
numerous graffiti that ask for the prayers of the martyred apostles, Peter and Paul.

Copyright Pontificia Commissione di Archeologia Cristiana, Roma (Used with Permission)

I was recently reading an interview with Gracia Burnham. An Evangelical missionary who was held hostage by Muslim terrorists for over a year with her missionary husband. Her husband was shot to death. In this interview she said the following:

Phil Calloway (editor of Servant Magazine-Evangelical): He sounds like an amazing guy. Is he making trouble up in heaven right now? (laughter)

Gracia: I used to tell the kids, I can just imagine your dad pulling on God's sleeves saying, "There's Gracia, she needs a car, she needs something." And then I told the kids why would almighty God who knows us and loves us and died for us need a human to tell him what we need. And I switched my thinking to God pulling on Martin's shirt sleeve and saying, "Hey Martin, look what I'm going to do for Gracia and her family." (Mission Fields Magazine spring 2004, pg 3)

Here is a perfect example of how the Catholic view on death is very prevalent among Evangelicals who have had a loved one die. Sure she distanced herself from her initial instinct of Martin praying for her in heaven, but her initial instinct was better. She said "Why would God need a human to tell him what we need." Yet in the same interview she attributes her escape from the terrorists to the faithful prayers of Christians back home.

The Catholic teaching is that there is a communion of saints who are praying for us and we can join them in prayer the same way as we would join in prayer with our friends at a prayer meeting.

In criticism of Catholics honouring of Saints, some Evangelicals point to Deuteronomy 18:10-12. The Catholic Church believes that Deuteronomy 18:10-12 speaks about the occult, soothsayers, sorcerers, spells, ghosts and spirits. It is not about heaven, angels and Jesus. Ghosts have not entered into heaven so it would displease God to talk with them. Also this passage occurs before Jesus conquered death and so no one was in heaven. Samuel was in the ground (1 Sam 28:8-25). They were all in Sheol (dead) so the passage makes sense. Leave them in peace. I have had experiences with spirits that are not in heaven before I became a Christian and it is not pretty! (See the "New Age" section for more on that)

Scripture says we were "all baptized into one body" (1 Corinthians 12:13). Christians are one body which is not divided by death or anything else (Rom 8:38-39). Christians in heaven are still members of that body of Christ? We are invited to honor the "heroes" of the faith (Heb 6:12, 11:1-40, Jas 5:10-11). I honour those heroes and I feel a unity with them.

" ... we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses . . ." (Hebrews 12:1 - RSV)

In his #1 Evangelical book, The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren, says:

Your spiritual family is even more important than your physical family because it will last forever. Our families on the earth are wonderful gifts from God, but they are temporary and fragile, often broken by divorce, distance, growing old, and inevitably, death...our spiritual family-our relationship to other believers-will continue throughout eternity. It is a much stronger union, a more permanent bond than blood relationships. (The Purpose Driven Life, pg 118, my emphasis)

In God's family you are connected to every other believer, and we will belong to each other for eternity. The Bible says, In Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. (The Purpose Driven Life, pg 130-31, original emphasis)

Here Pastor Rick, an Evangelical, almost perfectly describes the Catholic Dogma of the Communion of Saints. He goes on to quote C. S. Lewis the great Protestant writer who believed what Catholics said about saints.

Luckily, most Evangelicals don't believe in "soul sleep." Most studied Evangelicals acknowledge that soul sleep is unbiblical, and that the passages that compare death to sleep in the Bible clearly refer to the appearance of the body after someone dies, rather than the state of the soul. Heaven is not a dead place. Most Evangelicals agree.

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If only God is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, how do Saints hear a million requests for intercession at one time?

The best way to respond to this "million prayers at once" objection is to describe something in our lives. We have a little computerized recording studio. A friend of mine knows nothing about computers and when he heard our CD he said:

Hey how is it that you are singing all those voices and playing all those instruments at the same time. You are not omnipresent!

We explained to him that it takes us 150 hours to record a 3 minute song. With the computer we record each instrument and voice one after another and then mix them all together into this 3 minute song. So the measure of time we use to record the song is not the measure of time that people perceive when they hear the song on the radio. The recording was not made in "real time."

Heaven is not in "real (earth) time." Heaven is outside of earth time!

On one of our songs, I (Hugh) am singing 75 voices and playing 60 music tracks at the same time because we do not record in "real time." That does not make me "omnipresent!" If we can do this, heaven can figure out how to respond to multiple requests for prayer because they are not handled according to "earth time."

Calling on the Saints is not like calling the help desk for your internt provider, where they say "due to unusually high call volume there may be a wait time of 10 minutes, you are 8th in queue." Heaven doesn't work that way. It is outside of earth time.

The great scientist, Einstein describes the physical universe in 4 dimensions, length, width, depth and time. Jesus said "My kingdom is not of this world," therefore it makes sense that it is outside of time. The universe is a big place, omnipresence implies being everywhere in the universe and beyond at one once. A saint's ability to hear a bunch of requests for prayers at once doesn't infer omnipresence. It just means they are outside of time like everyone else in Heaven.

Catholics don't think people have to have omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence in order to be in heaven? Scripture tells us there are many levels of authority in heaven. (archangels, angels, cherubim, seraphim, etc.) Evangelicals believe angels know what is happening in different parts of the earth at the same time, yet they are not omnipresent. Catholics believe people in heaven are out of time and are enabled to observe and hear what is going on in the earth (which is expressly indicated in Scripture - at least the observing. The "hearing" is a valid deduction). Being out of time is more than sufficient to overcome the standard "million prayers at once" objection. (1)

Heaven is not like the "help desk call center", where you sit in the queue waiting for them to answer while you listen to bad music on the phone.

There is no prayer queue in heaven...

Oh, and they speak English perfectly in heaven too, they understand.

The veneration of Saints goes back to the beginning of Christianity. It is not a medieval belief. The speedy and enormous development of some catacombs was also due to the martyrs buried there. Many Christians insisted on having a tomb as close as possible to the venerated graves of the martyrs, in order to secure their intercession.

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Why do Catholics have patron saints for all different kinds of causes, such as traveling, musicians, lawyers, etc?

Protestants have prayer intercessors in their congregations who pray for all kinds of specific causes including government leaders, presidents, law makers, etc. Catholics believe some saints have a special interest in specific causes.

My friend Jeff Haydt, explains why some saints would have a particular ministry in heaven (i.e., healer of the sick). Some people have been gifted with specific spiritual charisms (i.e., healing - 1 Co 12:9). These charisms are a gift from God and used during the person's lifetime on earth. The gifts and callings of God are irrevocable (Rom. 11:29), so it makes sense that they would have these same gifts in heaven. A Christian who was a lawyer on earth might pray for lawyers when he gets to heaven. And God would probably be glad to ask him to do that. See also What about Catholics who pray to the Saints?

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Isn't Jesus powerful enough to give us Salvation without Saints?

Some Evangelicals think that the Catholic Church is saying that Jesus needs saints to do his work for him. They wonder if we are saying that Jesus is inadequate to do the job himself. We got an email that said:

...He [Jesus] has been, He is, and He always will be complete on His own.

Absolutely. God is complete. It is not out of Jesus' incompleteness that he has called angels and saints to join him in ministry. It is not because he is not strong enough and needs help. He could easily snap his fingers and the entire population of the world would suddenly see God and know He exists. He does not need Mary, angels, or saints. Nor does He need you or me. It is not out of his incompleteness that He has invited Mary, the angels, the saints and you and me to join in his ministry. It is out of his love for us.

Catholics think it is because of his generosity, his desire to share his graces, his overflowing goodness, and his great Love for us that He asks people to help him. The Psalmist said, "my cup overflows" (Ps 23). That is what God is. He is overflowing with graces that He shares with his angels and all his children. If He loves you and me so much as to invite us to join in his ministry, we don't think it is hard to imagine that He would invite his disciples who are in heaven to join in his ministry. The fact that all Christians agree that angels are helping us shows that we understand that Jesus invites helpers in heaven to join him, Catholics believe those helpers include faithful Christians who are in heaven.

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". . . I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; they cried out with a loud voice, "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth? " (Revelation 6:9-10, RSV)

The martyrs in heaven are saying "imprecatory prayers": pleas for God to rescue and vindicate the righteous. Examples can be found in the Psalms 35, 59, 69, 79, 109, 139 and in Jeremiah 11:18 ff., 15:15 ff., 18:19 ff., 20:11 ff. An angel offers up a very similar prayer in Zechariah 1:12.

Catholic vs. the Evangelical approach to relationship with Jesus

Scenario 1: If someone falls in love and they say:

I love you so much. I love you so much that I want to spend all my time with you. I never want to talk to your mother. I never want to see your family or friends. I want you to banish them when they come around, I just want to spend my whole life with you and love you.

That's how I understand the Evangelical take on a relationship to Jesus.

Scenario 2: On the other hand he could say:

I love you so much. I love you so much that I want to spend my time with you. Your mom is welcome to visit our home. Your family is my family, your friends are my friends. The people you love, I will love. We are one flesh and I welcome everyone you welcome.

The second one sounds like a more authentic love. This is the Catholic approach to a relationship with Jesus.

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Doesn't Revelation say not to bow in worship to angels?

We got an email citing the book of Revelation:

Then I fell at the angel's feet to worship the angel, he said ""You must not do that! [worship me] I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades the prophets, ...(Rev 19:10)

This person was suggesting that it is unscriptural to communicate with anyone in Heaven except Jesus. Let us examine the relationship between John and the angel. The angel was his "fellow servant." The angel was sent by God to give a critical message to John and all Christians:  "Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book." The angel told John to write down what the angel showed him. The result was the Book of Revelation, the Bible, the word of God. Yes, given through an angel.

Revelation opens with this verse...

1:1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John...

God used an angel, and did not do it himself? The angel didn't say "hey, don't talk to me, talk to God alone." I suggest that God uses servants. They are servants who know a lot more than us humans on earth. This takes nothing away from God. It simply reflects the overabundance of his grace. I suggest that the communication John had with the angel was what we may call "prayer."

The passage supports the catholic viewpoint on the role of heavenly servants rather than the contrary position held by some non-denominationalists.

John's communication with his "fellow servant" the angel did not mean that they were peers. In an army, a "private" is not a peer with a "corporal" even though the corporal is a "fellow soldier." There is a hierarchy in the military and also in heaven. (archangels, angels, seraphim, cherubim, etc) And at the bottom of this hierarchy are us lowly fellow servants on earth. Most evangelical theologians readily preach this hierarchy in heaven and we Catholics think there is nothing whatever unscriptural about communicating with heavenly creatures. Apparently, John, Mary, Zachariah and a ton of other holy servants had no problem with it either. The Bible says so.

God commissioned us to fight the spiritual battle on earth. Catholics don't think he'll decommission us when we get to heaven.

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What about Catholics who pray to the Saints?

Many Evangelicals think the word "pray" means "worship." So it makes sense that they think Catholics who "pray" to the Saints actually "worship" them. Let's look up the word "pray" in the dictionary. Here is what Webster's says about the word pray:

(1)  To utter petition to God ... (2) To make a fervent request: PLEAD (3)  To beseech: implore (4) to make a devout or earnest request for.

The first thing to notice is that the word "worship" is not included in the definition of "pray." It does not  mean "worship."

The English language is often limited in that we often have to use the same word to say different things. There are several meanings of the word "pray." When Catholics pray to God they "utter a petition to God." When they pray to the Saints they are making a "devout or earnest request for" prayers from Mary or the saints. In mediaeval times when a royal court official was asking something of a person who outranked him, he would say "I pray  thee your majesty." You have to say that in an English accent to get the full effect :-)  The person was simply making a request in a polite manner.

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Two judgments

For those Evangelicals who understand their teachings about the "Great White Seat of Christ", the "judgment Seat of Christ" and God's judgment of sin at the Cross, this could be helpful. Some Evangelicals are nervous about asking Christians in heaven to pray for us because they think the final judgment hasn't occurred yet. The Evangelist, Calvin held that the final destiny is not decided until the last day of history. (Inst. III, 25)

Catholics believe that there will be a final "general" judgment at the end of history but that there is a "particular" judgment at the time of death: that immediately after death, the eternal destiny of each separated soul is decided by the just judgment of God. Then at the end of the ages there will be a "general judgment" when the deeds of all will be known by all and nothing will be hidden. (Mk 12:38-40, Lk 12:1-3, Jn 2:20-21, Rom 2:16, 1 Cor 4:5)

There is a song that is a "Top 10" Christian hit by Evangelical singer Chris Rice. It says "I just want to be with you [God], I want this waiting to be over." Catholics say "Amen" to that. At every Evangelical funeral I've attended, I hear people saying "He is with the Lord now." They are confident the person is in heaven. So these good Evangelicals are saying that judgment has occurred. These Evangelicals are agreeing with Catholics that there must be two judgments. A comparison of Evangelical 2 judgments and the Catholic 2 judgments (Particular and General judgment) is here.

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Christ is the Centre

The Catholic Church is clear about the centrality of Jesus.

There is no other way of Christian prayer than Christ. Whether our prayer is communal or personal, vocal or interior, it has access to the Father only if we pray "in the name" of Jesus... to invoke him.  (Catechism 2665-2666)

The Saints are simply "alumni" who are there to help Jesus in the same way the angels help. Pope John Paul II wrote in his Message to World Youth day 2000 the following:

"The Cross, which seems to rise up from the earth, in actual fact reaches down from heaven, enfolding the universe in a divine embrace. The Cross reveals itself to be the centre, meaning and goal of all history and every human life."

Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.
Amen