I’m actually writing this particular post specifically at the request of a friend of mine. Like many Protestants, the idea of praying to the saints – or more accurately, to anyone other than God – seems both incredibly bizarre to him and also un-biblical. I can sympathize. After all, I used to feel exactly the same way.
In fact, this very question was the first one I ever asked of a Catholic when I was just a young man myself. In junior high I had a Catholic gymnastics coach named Gino, and I distinctly remembering asking him, “Why do you guys pray to Mary and the saints rather than to God?” Gino gave me a thoughtful and well considered response, and while I didn’t end up becoming Catholic for almost another 30 years, it really helped to resolve any issues I had with that particular issue from then on. All these years later, and now I would like to give my own response.
To begin with, I think we should all agree on what the word “pray” means. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines prayer as:
“to entreat or implore —often used as a function word in introducing a question, request, or plea – to get or bring by praying, to make a request in a humble manner” and lastly, “to address God or a god with adoration, confession, supplication, or thanksgiving.”
In other words, properly speaking a prayer is merely an entreaty or a request. It may be a supplication addressed to God, but historically it is also a word which is used when petitioning others, i.e., “I pray thee your honor – listen to my request.” In fact, this expression was so common that in the late 16th century the word “prithee” was created as an abbreviation of the phrase, “I pray thee.”
Admittedly, this usage has largely fallen out of fashion in modern times which is part of the reason why there is such confusion on this issue. Most people today think of prayer only as a form of communication with God, even though this is not its only meaning nor its only historic use.
With all of that in mind, the first point that should be made is this:
When Catholics “pray” to the saints they are merely making a request or an entreaty to the saints that they would pray for us.
They are not praying to the saints in the sense of, “addressing God or a god with adoration.” That may seem like a lot of groundwork to lay before we even begin to look at the question properly, but I think that it’s important to define both what we mean and also what we don’t mean when we use the word “pray”.
Christians of every denomination will pray for other Christians and will also ask other Christians to pray for them. But why? After all, we are told by St. Paul that, “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,”1 If there is one mediator between God and man, and if that one mediator is Jesus, then why do you or I pray for others at all? Why do we ask them to pray for us? Why don’t we all just pray directly to God the Father through the mediation of Christ?
The answer of course is quite simple. The bible tells us to. In fact, the bible tells us to do so in the four verses which proceed the often quoted passage above. Here’s the whole thing in context. “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,”2
In other words, it is only through the primary mediation of Christ that our secondary mediation for others can have any effect. But we are called (indeed commanded) to mediate and intercede for others precisely because Christ mediates for us. St. James also commands us to pray for others when he says, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.”3
Now I would like to ask a couple of very simple question. If the prayers of a righteous man has great power in its effects, then who is more righteous than the saints in heaven? The author of Hebrews describes them as, “the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, …the spirits of just men made perfect,”4 If we are commanded to pray for each other by St. James and St. Paul, then why would we presume that their command no longer applies once a Christian has gone to be with God? Why would we presume that we can no longer pray for them, or that they can no longer pray for us?
The common response to this question is to dismiss the saints who have gone before us as being “dead” and therefore unable to see and know what is taking place here in this world, much less affect anything with their prayers for us. But this view is contrary to the entire point of the Christian message!
Contrary to our incredibly limited viewpoint, those who have died in Christ are not less alive than we are, but are rather more fully alive than they have ever been! This is the very good news of the Gospel message! Christ Himself reminds us that, “he is not God of the dead, but of the living; for all live to him.”5 And far from not seeing or being aware of what takes place here, the author of Hebrews describes the saints who have gone before us as being, “a great cloud of witnesses”6 who have completed their own race and now cheer us on from the stands.
We see two of these saints who are enrolled in heaven come down to the Mount of Transfiguration in order to meet with Christ and his disciples Peter, James, and John. “And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Eli′jah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.”7 Not only do these “dead” saints interact with the disciples and Christ, but they are also quite aware of the events taking place there along with Christ’s imminent departure.
In the Revelation,, St. John is allowed to peek into heaven and sees both angels and saints offering up the prayers of those of us here below as incense before the throne of God. “the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints;”8 “and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God.”9
Even in the Old Testament we see an account of a saint in heaven interceding for those on earth when we read, “[Judas Maccabeus] told them that he had seen a vision of Onias, the former High Priest, that great and wonderful man of humble and gentle disposition, who was an outstanding orator and who had been taught from childhood how to live a virtuous life. With outstretched arms Onias was praying for the entire Jewish nation. Judas then saw an impressive white-haired man of great dignity and authority. Onias said: ‘This is God’s prophet Jeremiah, who loves the Jewish people and offers many prayers for us and for Jerusalem, the holy city.’”10
We could look at other Scriptural accounts, but the bottom line is this – Scripture commands us to pray for each other as secondary mediators in and through Christ who is our primary mediator. These prayers (especially those of righteous men) accomplish much in our lives and the lives of those we pray for. We are all one in Christ. There is no such thing as one Church in heaven and one on earth, nor is there one body of Christ in heaven and one on earth. The dead in Christ are not dead but truly alive in Him! Scripture is full of accounts of the angels and saints in heaven watching over us, interacting with us, and yes, even praying for us and offering our prayers through the mediation of Christ to God the Father.