As a convert, I had to come to a better understanding of a lot of the Church’s teachings. I struggled with the typical things, like Mary and Purgatory, and also with the intercession of the saints. However, it didn’t take me long to understand and begin to appreciate the practice. I felt like I found a great community and a lot of like-minded people who I could relate to. But, how did this practice even begin? I thought in this month of saints and souls, it might be helpful to know the roots of believing in the saints.
What It’s Not
I think it’s helpful, first, to understand, what believing and praying to the saints is not. Praying to the saints is not:
- Worshiping the saints (only God deserves our worship!)
- Conjuring the dead or performing a seance
- Idolatry (especially of statues or holy images)
To the surprise of some, there are a lot of instances of saints, iconography, relics, etc. in the Bible. In the book of Exodus, after being set free from slavery, crossing the Red Sea, and receiving the Law, Moses was told to make the Ark of the Covenant, to hold the tablets of the Law. The Ark wasn’t just a box to hold the tablets, but a sacred item (so sacred that a guy touched it and died!). The Lord instructed the Israelites to carve cherubim (angels) on the top of the Ark (Exodus 25). The angels showed just how sacred the Ark was, and that God’s presence and the holy angels were present there.
Small note here: these sacred items do have a supernatural element to them (as evidenced by the guy dying by touching the Ark), and this can be seen in the story of the prophet Elisha’s bones healing a dead man (2 Kings 13:20-22; that is a pretty cool story). This is why relics are precious still today.
In the Transfiguration, both Moses and Elijah appeared and talked with Jesus on the mountain (Matthew 17). This was no conjuring or seance.
In the book of Hebrews, there is a clear and descriptive picture of the saints:
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.Hebrews 12:22-24
Praying for Each Other
In the book of Revelation, it describes the saints and martyrs around the Throne of God, worshiping, singing, and holding bowls full of the “prayers of God’s people” (Revelation 4:10, 5:8, 6:9-11). This is an mistakable picture of the saints holding and offering up our prayers.
Also, in Revelation 8, there’s another picture of the prayers of the saints rising to God.:
Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.Revelation 8:3-4
We hear that the saints can hear our prayers and they are taking them to God for us, and this should encourage us.
In several instances in the Bible, people were asked or asked others to pray for one another (like Abraham, Job, and St. Paul, who asked this in his letters a bunch of times). In a similar way, we ask the saints to pray for us, like we would ask a friend to pray of us. This doesn’t mean that Jesus is not our mediator, because the prayers are directed to him, through the intercession of the saint (1 Timothy 2:5-6). We are asked to pray and even told that the prayer of a righteous person avails much (James 5:!6-17). As members of the Body of Christ, the Church, we can pray for each other efficaciously (the saints are still a part o this eternal Body of Christ!).
Both Church Fathers and creeds of old, as well as the Church councils and the Catechism (and the old catechisms) all affirm that we do not pray to images, relics, statues, etc. They are reminders of the people they represent, that in turn represent who Christ is and was. The statues and items also represent the presence of those people in the place where they are housed.
The faithful continue to pray novenas for the intercession of saints and put up pictures of saints in their homes. It is a distinctly Catholic practice because it was really only questioned and/or denied in the last few centuries.