The Saints: Part II- Can the Saints Pray for Us?
Matthew J. Bellisario 2010
In the first part of this series we examined what type of “worship” Catholics give to the Saints. We determined that it was a type of veneration in which we express a deep respect, honor, reverence and love for our brothers and sisters in Christ who now reside in the heavenly realm with Christ. We also realized that we also adore God as well when we praise the Saints, and we recognize the grace of God that was bestowed upon them. It is worth noting what St. Jerome had to say about this, “Still we honor the relics of the martyrs, that we may adore Him whose martyrs they are. We honor the servants that their honor may be reflected upon their Lord who Himself says:--'he that receiveth you receiveth me.' Jerome, To Riparius, Epistle 109:1 (A.D. 404) In this second part I wanted to examine whether or not it seems probable from the Scriptures and from Tradition as to whether or not the Saints in heaven can see us and pray for us.
Our first stop will be Sacred Scripture. In the Gospel of Luke we see Jesus clearly tell his followers that all who have departed in faith are still “living”, and that the dead rise again. This seems to imply that those who have gone on are not sleeping or in a state where they are oblivious to what is going on in the Body of Christ. “Now that the dead rise again, Moses also shewed, at the bush, when he called the Lord, The God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; For he is not the God of the dead, but of the living: for all live to him.” (Luke 20:37-38) All those in the Body of Christ are alive,including those who have gone on before us. In the Apocalypse of Saint John we see many instances of those in heaven worshiping God as we do here on earth. “And round about the throne were four and twenty seats; and upon the seats, four and twenty ancients sitting, clothed in white garments, and on their heads were crowns of gold...And they rested not day and night, saying: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come.” (Rev 4:4,8) In chapter 5 we see a clear reference to heaven where there is worship representative of the Mass, including the use of incense and where the prayers of the Saints are presented before almighty God. “And when he had opened the book, the four living creatures, and the four and twenty ancients fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints: And they sung a new canticle, saying: Thou art worthy, O Lord, to take the book, and to open the seals thereof; because thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God, in thy blood, out of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation. And hast made us to our God a kingdom and priests, and we shall reign on the earth.” (Rev 5:8-10)
It is well known that the ancient tradition of the Catholic Church is to have relics of the Saints put in the altars which are venerated during the worship of the Mass. This is not an invention that was made out of thin air. The first Christians in the catacombs worshiped on the relics of the martyrs and Saints, and the idea is represented in Sacred Scripture. “And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying: How long, O Lord (holy and true) dost thou not judge and revenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” (Rev 6”9-10) There are some who think that these texts are only referring to something in the future which will take place only at a later time and that those who have gone on before us are not in the state in which these texts refer. Yet we know that this is not true based on consistent interpretation of tradition in the Church, in her liturgies and in its consistency with other parts of Scripture which allude to those who have gone on before us like Moses and Elias for example, are still alive and were revealed as being so in the Gospels. During the Transfiguration Jesus Himself revealed that Moses and Elias were indeed alive and able to see and participate in some form after their deaths. “And behold there appeared to them Moses and Elias talking with him.” (Matthew 17:3) Finally in the book of Hebrews we see Saint Paul tell us that there is a great cloud of witnesses watching over us as we here on earth strive to serve almighty God. “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...” (Hebrews 12:1)
Many use the text of 1 Timothy to claim that Catholics are violating the one mediator who is Christ by asking the Saints to pray for us. “For there is one God, and one mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus: Who gave himself a redemption for all, a testimony in due times.” (1 Timothy 2:5-6) The Catholic Church however is not saying that the Saints are like Christ who is our redemption and who is able to reconcile mankind to God by the shedding of His blood. We simply see the Saints as our living brothers and sisters in Christ who are still living and able to pray for us as we ask people to do so on earth. If it is not a violation of the one mediator-ship of Christ to ask for someone’s prayers while they are alive here on earth, it is not a violation to ask those living in heaven to pray for us either. What is also ironic is that Protestants will quote 1 Tim 2:5-6 to refute Catholics saying that we are violating Christ’s mediation by asking others to pray for us, yet they skip over verse 1 which tells us that we should pray for others. “I desire therefore, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men:...” (1 Timothy 2:1) So, if the Saints can hear and see us, and they are indeed alive and active in the Body of Christ, then it would seem that there is no violation of Christ’s mediation by asking them to pray for us.
If we now look to the early Christians as witnesses, we can see very plainly that they also venerated the Saints and asked for their intercession. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem wrote, "Then we commemorate also those who have fallen asleep before us, first Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, that at their prayers and intercessions God would receive our petition. Then on behalf also of the Holy Fathers and Bishops who have fallen asleep before us, and in a word of all who in past years have fallen asleep among us, believing that it will be a very great benefit to the souls, for whom the supplication is put up, while that holy and most awful sacrifice is set forth." Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 23:9 (A.D. 350)
It seems that Saint Augustine in is age had heretics attacking him for accusing him of worshiping idols as well when he honored the Saints and asked for their intercession. Saint Augustine refutes their fallacy. "As to our paying honor to the memory of the martyrs, and the accusation of Faustus, that we worship them instead of idols, I should not care to answer such a charge, were it not for the sake of showing how Faustus, in his desire to cast reproach on us, has overstepped the Manichaean inventions, and has fallen heedlessly into a popular notion found in Pagan poetry, although he is so anxious to be distinguished from the Pagans. For in saying that we have turned the idols into martyrs, be speaks of our worshipping them with similar rites, and appeasing the shades of the departed with wine and food…It is true that Christians pay religious honor to the memory of the martyrs, both to excite us to imitate them and to obtain a share in their merits, and the assistance of their prayers. But we build altars not to any martyr, but to the God of martyrs, although it is to the memory of the martyrs. Augustine, Against Faustus, 20:21 (A.D. 400) It is also no secret that St. Augustine attested to many miracles brought about by the veneration of the Saints and their relics, and you can read it for yourself in his grand work, “The City of God.”
Likewise Saint Jerome had to battle those whom he called “inventors” for their false accusations in attacking him for venerating the relics of the Saints. He responded quite firmly, “I ask Vigilantius, Are the relics of Peter and of Paul unclean? Was the body of Moses unclean, of which we are told (according to the correct Hebrew text) that it was buried by the Lord Himself? And do we, every time that we enter the basilicas of apostles and prophets and martyrs, pay homage to the shrines of idols? Are the tapers which burn before their tombs only the tokens of idolatry? I will go farther still and ask a question which will make this theory recoil upon the head of its inventor and which will either kill or cure that frenzied brain of his, so that simple souls shall be no more subverted by his sacrilegious reasonings. Let him answer me this, Was the Lord's body unclean when it was placed in the sepulchre? And did the angels clothed in white raiment merely watch over a corpse dead and defiled, that ages afterwards this sleepy fellow might indulge in dreams and vomit forth his filthy surfeit, so as, like the persecutor Julian, either to destroy the basilicas of the saints or to convert them into heathen temples?" Jerome, To Riparius, 109:1 (A.D. 404). There are many more examples I could quote form the early Fathers on this subject. For the sake of brevity I will refrain from doing so,
Finally it is worth noting that the veneration of Saints has existed in the Divine Liturgy from the earliest times of structured Christian worship. Every documented liturgy that dates back to the ancient apostolic Churches contain prayers to the Saints, as well as prayers that pay tribute and honor to the Saints. For example, we see in the Proskomedia (Greek word meaning offering. The first part of the Liturgy derives its name from the early Christian custom of the people offering bread and wine and all else that was needed for the Liturgy.) in the Eastern Church liturgy, that there is a portion of the bread that will be used for the veneration of the Saints. “From the second prosphora, the priest cuts out one portion in honor of the Virgin Mary and places it on the right side of the Lamb on the diskos. From the third prosphora, which is called "that of the nine ranks," are taken nine portions in honor of the saints, John the Forerunner and Baptist, the prophets, the Apostles, the hierarchs, the martyrs, the monastic saints, the unmercenary physicians, the grandparents of Jesus, Joachim and Anna, the saint who is celebrated that day, the saint to whom the church is dedicated, and finally the saint who composed the liturgy being celebrated. These portions are placed on the left side the Lamb. From the fourth prosphora, portions are removed for the hierarchs, the priesthood, and all the living. From the fifth prosphora, portions are taken for those Orthodox Christians who have reposed.” (Bishop Alexander (Mileant) 2001)
There are several parts of the liturgy where the intercession of the Saints are petitioned by the faithful. For example, one antiphon of the Divine Liturgy reads, “Through the intercessions of the Theotokos (The Mother of God), Savior, save us” and at the dismissal the priest asks for the intercession of the Theotokos and the Saints. “May Christ our true God, through the intercessions of His all-immaculate Mother, of the holy and glorious Apostles, of our Father among the Saints, John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople ... and of all the Saints, have mercy on us and save us, for He is good and the Lover of mankind.” These types of prayers to the Saints are said in the proper worship of every ancient Rite of the Church.
Before I close I would like to address the lighting of candles in the Catholic Church. Some people ask why we light candles in front of the icons or other images of the Saints in our churches. We can see from the quote that I cited earlier that Saint Jerome in the early 400s burned candles before the tombs of the martyrs. This was done for a variety of reasons. It is to represent God’s grace, the fire of the Holy Spirit which is present among the faithful, and among the Saints. It also represents the fire of prayer among the faithful, and the light that Christ has brought into the world. In short it symbolizes the new life that is given to us by the fire of Divine love. Turtullian in the 2nd century wrote of the use of candles in the liturgy, “We never hold a service without candles, yet we use them not just to dispel night's gloom we also hold our services in daylight but in order to represent by this Christ, the Uncreated Light, without Worn we would in broad daylight wander as if lost in darkness.” We also see the candles that burn in the sanctuary of the Church near the tabernacle where Our Lord is Present to identify His presence there as well. The lighting of candles was not foreign to the ancient Christians, and the Jews also included such symbolism in their liturgies, “He set the candlestick also in the tabernacle of the testimony over against the table on the south side, Placing the lamps in order, according to the precept of the Lord.” (Exodus 40:22-23)
So in closing we can rest assured that the worship given to the Saints is appropriate in the Catholic faith, and that it not only gives honor and veneration to our brothers and sisters in Christ, it also gives honor to God for the grace that he gives us and His Saints. It is also reasonable to believe that the Saints are not dead and are not completely separated from us, for none are dead that live in Christ. (Luke 20:37-38) Scripture and Tradition attest to this very fact. Finally, we should not be embarrassed about lighting candles before the icons, relics and other images of the Saints. It is an appropriate symbolic act that represents our faith in God, the light of Christ, and the continuous prayers of the Saints before almighty God.