Many people find it hard to understand why Catholics pray to Saints. Some even find it blasphemous. So what’s the truth?
The first thing I usually point out is that prayer and worship is not always the same thing. The prayer “God, please let me win the lottery” is not worship and “God, I’m so angry with you. Why would you let this happen to me?” is certainly not worship. Prayer is spiritual communication and we can use prayer to worship but we don’t always worship when we pray.
“Is not Jesus the only mediator between God and man? Doesn’t this make it blasphemy to pray to someone else for help? How can we expect anyone else, especially someone we never knew, to intervene for us before God?”
To answer this question I’ll point out that many people act as mediators for others all the time. When people feel they need assistance they usually ask someone to pray for them. Without even being asked people will pray for their loved ones and for people who they feel may be in need of prayer. Most people, when asked for prayers, don’t tell the person asking “Go pray straight to Jesus. He’s the only one who can intervene for you”. We know instinctively that praying for others is a good and holy thing. We also know that the prayers of others can somehow assist us – otherwise, we wouldn’t ask for them. Offering prayer for each other is pleasing to God. He wants us to work together and help each other. His desire is for us to be united – to become one body. We are not taking anything away from Jesus’ job. Jesus is not going to be jealous that we ask someone else to pray for us in addition to praying for ourselves. That’s double the prayer for us. Do you think a little girl who visits her mother’s grave and with tears rolling down her face says “Mommy, please help me, I’m sad… I need you” is somehow praying outside of God’s will? Assuming the mother lived a holy life and is now in Heaven – would she be refused the gift of hearing her daughter’s prayer? Would she be denied the opportunity to offer her own prayers and intercessions for this child whom she loves dearly and whom God loves dearly? How can we pray for others here on earth and ask them to pray for us – we who are so tainted and sinful – while we refuse to ask for prayers from those who have been made perfect in Christ?
“The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” (James 5:16). Lets talk about 1 Tim 2:5 which states “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ-Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). Now there’s a certain danger when one takes a single-line quote from the Bible in order to prove some doctrine. It’s important to keep quotes from scripture in their original context to truly understand what they mean. Let’s go back to 1 Timothy and look a few lines above verse five. The beginning of 1 Tim 2 says, “First of all, I urge that supplications, prayers, and intercessions be made for all men … this is good, and acceptable in the sight of God, our Savior”. It almost sounds like St. Paul is contradicting himself. Why say ‘I urge all of you to offer prayers and intercessions (to be mediators) for each other” and then immediately say “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ-Jesus”? It makes a world of a difference to include the quote in its original context. St Paul actually is encouraging others to be more like Christ. We are called to share in Christ’s mission.
But aren’t the Saints dead? How do we know they can even hear our prayers much less assume their activities consist of listening to them and offering them to God?
The Saints live eternally sanctified and perfected in Christ. They are resurrected by God and are more alive than we are here on Earth. Matthew 22:23-32 states, “But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.
Can’t I Just Go Directly to Jesus?
It is in God’s plan that the Saints in Heaven, and the righteous on earth, offer prayers for those struggling and living in sin. I’ve been asked many times, “Why can’t you just go directly to Jesus? What reason is there to take a side-road?” Well, you can and should go directly to Jesus. In fact, that is the very encouragement of the Church. The issue is not whether or not we can go directly to Jesus in prayer. The issue is – can and should we also pray for others and ask them to pray us? Look back to 1 Timothy 2 where supplications and intercessions are urged for all to do. I’ll grant that he is at the moment talking to people who are alive on Earth. However, notice St. Paul’s choice of words here, “I urge that supplications, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men”. This is a very interesting choice of words. Why does St. Paul urge these things? Why didn’t he just say ‘there’s no need to ask others for prayer – just go directly to Jesus’?
Supplication is humble prayer or petition. Intercession is a pleading on behalf of another to God. Thanksgiving is also urged and in light of the fact that the original Greek word for thanksgiving was Eucharistia (Eucharist) Catholics see this as reference to the Mass. Masses are offered for people alive and dead. When someone dies a Mass is offered for them and the present congregation offers humble prayers and petitions (supplications), pleas for their soul (intercessions), and then we join in the Eucharist (thanksgiving).
We sometimes fear that Jesus will act like us and in human weakness be jealous and stingy when it comes to prayer. Jesus is not selfish. He is generous. He is the King of Kings and the true Shepard. He is the only one worth to sit on the throne and yet he shares it with His people.
“To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne.” (Rev 3:21)
“Truly, I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28)”
He also shares his ministry with others.
“And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven’” (John 20:22-23).
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matt 16:19)
Though God is the only one that can heal he gives that gift to his disciples so that they may share in the ministry of healing. “The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people … As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed” (ACTS 5:12,15-16).
Jesus Himself commands people on various occasions to offer prayers for others and regularly supplied for a person based on the faith of another.
“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
In Matthew 8 there came to Jesus a centurion beseeching him “And saying, Lord, my servant lays at home sick of the palsy, and is grievously tormented. And Jesus said to him: I will come and heal him. And the centurion, making answer, said: Lord, I am not worthy that thou should enter under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant shall be healed. For I also am a man subject to authority, having under me soldiers; and I say to this, Go, and he goes, and to another Come, and he comes, and to my servant, Do this, and he does it. And Jesus hearing this, marveled; and said to them that followed him. Amen I say to you, I have not found so great faith in Israel. And Jesus said to the centurion: Go, and as thou hast believed, so be it done to thee. And the servant was healed at the same hour.”
In this passage Jesus explicitly performs a miracle and heals a man who is very ill based on the merit of his masters faith. We don’t see Jesus cast the man out saying “let him pray to me for healing”. Jesus cures the man because of the centurions’ intercession, because of his prayer of plea for his servant. In this way we can see the beauty of intercession. A plea to God on someone else’s account is a beautiful thing. It shows great love. This is why it’s pleasing to God. Jesus’ heart is moved when our love is so great for another that we plea to Him on their account. He’s full of mercy and compassion and is moved by our mercy and compassion for each other. This is how we imitate Christ and this is why he commands it of us.
When We Can’t Go Straight To God
There are times when we cannot go straight to God because we have broken our relationship with Him. Imagine an example of three close friends: Mike, Joe and Luke. Mike kisses Joe’s girlfriend. Joe may be so hurt or upset that he refuses to talk to Mike. The relationship is broken between them. Now, if Mike feels truly sorry and wishes to apologize he may go to Luke and say “Talk to Joe for me. Tell him I’m really sorry and I want to be friends again”. Sometimes it’s better for those on good terms with the person we are trying to reach to speak on our behalf and help mend the relationship. A biblical example of this can be found in Job 42:7. God is talking to Job’s friends. They spoke ill of God during Job’s suffering. Therefore, God told them He would not accept their prayers directly.
“I am angry with you and with your two friends; for you have not spoken rightly concerning me, as has my servant Job. Now, therefore, take seven bullocks and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up a holocaust for yourselves; and let my servant Job pray for you; for his prayer I will accept, not to punish you severely. For you have not spoken rightly concerning me, as has my servant Job. Then Eliphaz the Temanite, and Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite, went and did as the Lord had commanded them. And the Lord accepted the intercession of Job (Job 42:7-9, emphasis added)”.
In light of this passage it looks like there may be times when we may actually have to rely on others’ intercessions. In the case of Job’s friends intercession of a Saint was not only beneficial but absolutely necessary.
Where does Scripture Say That Saints Are Alive Or That Can Hear Our Prayers?
Hebrews 12:1 states, “And therefore we also having so great a cloud of witnesses over our head, laying aside every weight and sin which surrounds us, let us run by patience to the fight proposed to us”. What cloud of witnesses is St. Paul talking about here? Let’s jump down a few verses to Hebrews 12:22-23 where it says “But you are come to mount Sion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem and to the company of many thousands of angels. And to the church of the firstborn who are written in the heavens, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the just made perfect”.
Revelation 5:8 says, “And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people”. So indeed the Saints are in Heaven where they sing and worship, and… offer our prayers to God. Remember “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” (James 5:16).
You may still be wondering, “How can the Saints hear our prayers – especially if multiple people are praying to them at once?” The answer is… I don’t know. If you jumped in a time machine and went back a thousand years you’d have trouble explaining radio and television broadcast to the people of that time. They might ask you “How could you possibly make someones voice travel to people all over the world in an instant?” If we have technology to record audio and video of a person for playback whenever we want – how much more can God do? I can scour the Internet reading posts and watching videos of people in need of prayer. I recently saw, in the news, information about the typhoon that hit the Philippines. When I saw the news about the death and suffering of God’s people I bowed my head and offered prayers for those affected. There were probably thousands, or millions, of people offering prayers after seeing the news. We can use Internet technology to make each other aware of the suffering and needs of the body of Christ on Earth. Why do we believe that the perfected members of the body of Christ in Heaven do not enjoy an even greater awareness?
We have some pretty amazing technology these days. We seem be pushing the limits of what is possible and everyday I read about some new technology that blows me away. Still, we have to recognize that God is infinitely smarter than we are. If we can continue to find ways to advance our means of communication then God has the capability to endow the Saints in Heaven with perfected communication. How do we know they are not bound by language (English, Spanish… etc) anymore? Why do we assume they are bound by time and space like we are? I don’t know how God makes our prayers known to the Saints but I do know that for God “all things are possible” (Matt 19:26).
In ACTS chapter 5, Ananias and his wife sell some property and conspire to keep some money for their self. Peter is somehow revealed the lie in their hearts and tells Ananias, “how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”
I’m a computer scientist so I can understand very well the desire to always know “how” something works. However, more important than understanding how God may make our prayers known to Saints is understanding why he does so. When we join our sufferings together we become closer and more united. Such is also the case when we join our efforts together. We are not meant to do it on our own. We are designed to rely on each other, to support each other, and to sacrifice for each other. Saying “I will just go directly to Jesus by myself” ignores the community around you. More pleasing to God is to say “I will walk with my brothers and sisters to Jesus so that if one of us stumbles along the way we may carry each other in our weak moments”. Praying for others and asking for others to pray for us is working together as a team. No one likes to be a part of a team where one of the players says “I don’t need you guys I can win this game on my own”. The Saints are the best players in the game. They are winners. They are the ones who are “victorious” and “given the right to sit with Jesus on his throne” (Rev 3:21). It is God’s will that the Body of Christ work together and be united. Don’t exclude the Saints from your team. They can help you be victorious.