I 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.