Praying to the Saints

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IPrayer was asked recently by a guy I meet with quite often what I thought about people praying to the saints. I gave him what I considered to be quite a well reasoned response, but promised to do some further study about it. I must admit, praying to the saints isn’t something to which I’ve ever given too much thought. It wasn’t part of the church tradition with which I grew up. Although I’d never been told specifically not to do it, I still automatically formed the opinion that it was something I didn’t need to do.

I was directed to an article on a Catholic website, which sets out the common objections to praying to the saints, and gives a response to each. This, if you like, is my response to their response.

First of all though, I would like to deal with this idea of people being “saints”. Protestant and Catholic theology differs on the definition and application of this word. In the Catholic tradition, one becomes a saint through the process known as “Canonization”. As a process, Canonization has been a feature of the Catholic Church since 1234, when Pope Gregory IX established clear procedures for determining whether or not a deceased believer could be considered a saint. The process today is as follows: when a believer who is considered to have lived a particularly holy life dies, the Diocese Bishop begins an investigation into their life; a particular focus of this is to determine if a miracle has occurred through this person’s ministry. The candidate’s writings are examined, to make sure they are sound. The Bishop then submits a report to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. If the candidate is decided to have lived a “life with heroic virtue” then they are declared Venerable. If the candidate is credited with a miracle, they progress to the next stage – beatification. If they are found to have performed another posthumous miracle, they may then be canonized as a saint.

Protestant theology would argue a different notion of sainthood. The New Testament frequently uses the term “saints” to describe Christians in general (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1). There is no suggestion of spectacular virtue in this usage; saints are shown to be any who believe in Jesus and have been saved by grace. The word “saint” comes from the Greek Hagios, meaning “sacred, holy”. That same Greek word gives us the term Sanctification (Hagiasmos), which is the process by which God sets apart his people to be holy. The first instance of this is known as Positional Sanctification. Anyone who becomes a Christian is Positionally Sanctified, in that the grace of God has removed the taint of their sin from them through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and they are now considered holy; they are declared a saint.

As far as praying to the saints goes, protestant theology has a clear issue in that we are all saints. The question then is “Why would someone pray to another person, when they can go straight to Jesus?” The Catholic article I read answers this question by describing it as intercession. It argues that we have no issue with asking other Christians to pray for us, and that’s what it means to pray to the saints. For me, that raises the issue of why we ask other Christians to pray for us. Is it because we think our prayers alone aren’t enough? I don’t think so. For me, when I ask others to pray for me, it’s because of the encouragement, solidarity and fellowship I receive from my brothers and sisters in the faith. It may be that those who pray to the ‘saints’ draw similar encouragement from them, but personally I can’t see the benefit. If the purpose of asking others to pray for us is that they may encourage us, then that encouragement is surely best sought from those who can be physically present with us. If there is no one present with us, then we would be better served going straight to the ultimate giver of comfort; the Holy Spirit. To do otherwise puts us in danger of elevating the saints who have gone before us to the same status as Jesus himself.

That, for me, is the key issue. There are patron saints for a wide variety of things; countries, vocations, leisure activities, etc. If someone has a particular need, they pray to the Saint who represents that need. For instance, if I were going on a motorcycle ride, I might pray to St. Columbanus, the patron saint of motorcyclists, that I might be kept safe. When it’s framed like that, it looks a lot like the polytheistic religions, like Hinduism. There are over 330 million Hindu gods. We in the West are most familiar with the major gods like Shiva and Ganesh, but there are multitudes of minor gods who each represent a single element of daily life. If a believer has a need, they would pray to the god who represents that area of life. As Christians we believe that there is one God, and the only way to him is through Jesus. Why then would we set up intermediaries between us and him, when he has made it clear that he doesn’t want that (John 14)?

The fact is, our departed brothers and sisters, the saints, are just that – departed. Jesus, however, is very much alive, sat at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us (Romans 8:34). That being the case, I for one would much rather pray to Jesus, who is God, than a human who isn’t.

3 thoughts on “Praying to the Saints

  1. While I completely see where this article is coming from I have to say that I think it’s a very typical view of someone who has never developed a relationship with saints.

    You say that you ask other Christians to pray for you because you want solidarity and support and companionship in your prayers – why do you think people are praying to saints? And why would you assume you can have a greater relationship with people only physically present?

    The term “praying to saints” is one that for me (a Catholic) is quite unusual. We tend to describe it as talking to them. They are people who have gone before us yes, but they’re just people whom we trust to have been close with God and closer to knowing the right ways to do things and ways to live. We ask priests and pastors advice – because we trust thier superior knowledge and trust that their relationship with God may be deeper than ours is just yet.

    You develop friendships with saints – certain ones anyway. Different people have a greater rapport with different saints. St Christopher for example has looked ridiculously favourably on me for years and I feel a genuine friendship between us and I’m sure always will. On the other hand I’ve never had much luck asking St Jude for intercession though some people swear he never fails them.

    No one I know has ever suggested that saints are on par with God – and Jesus. They don’t have special powers or any kind of mystique surrounding them – they are just departed people who are known to have expertise in certain areas. In the same way I ask saints to pray for me, I ask my late grandmother and I ask fellow Christians. You tend to choose who you ask out of these people – based upon what you are asking. My grandma knew her stuff when it came to cooking – should I ever be in a high pressure cooking situation I imagine it will be her to whom I turn.

    As a catholic I believe that saints and those deceased are closer to God – and so for me it makes more than perfect sense to ask thier prayers too. But the notion that a person needs to be physically present to offer you encouragement is to me, ubsurd. Because I know that the encouragement I get from the saints I know, is the most comforting and wonderful thing to me – more than any one of my friends, priests or fellow Christians have ever been able to offer me.

    You’re not setting up “intermediates” you are asking for prayers to sit alongside your own. My suggestion to you is try it some time; you may find a friendship that you never knew you had and may one day wonder how you lived without it.

    1. Hi Sukie,

      Thanks for the comment. I confess that I’ve never attempted to form a relationship with one of the saints. This is due mostly to the church tradition with which I grew up, of which this just wasn’t a part. Since I have no practical experience with this, I sought to write this blog based on what I see in Scripture. I’m saying that not to prove any kind of superiority on my part, but just to show that my understanding of this has come from studying the Bible without the addition of the personal experience which you have.

      I’m curious about what your experience of talking to the saints is like. You say that St Christopher has looked favourably on you; what does that look like? Similarly with your grandma, do you find that she offers you help in cooking? I’m very interested to know how that works.

      In terms of the notion of the saints and deceased being closer to God, I think that’s an area where our understanding differs. While I concede that those who are deceased may seem closer to God because their soul is present with him in Heaven (depending on your beliefs about when people enter Heaven), I would argue that if you’re a Christian and you’re filled with the Holy Spirit then God is present in your own heart (1 Cor 3:16; 1 Cor 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; Ezek 36:27…) and therefore you are as close to God as anyone can be. Therefore, I would question the notion of the saints’ or the deceased’s prayers being any more effective than your own.

      I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on those short comments.

  2. But this does not mean that we should not also ask our fellow Christians, including those in heaven, to pray with us. In addition to our prayers directly to God and Jesus (which are absolutely essential to the Christian life), there are abundant reasons to ask our fellow Christians in heaven to pray for us.

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