Catholics Aren’t Crazy: On Praying to Saints (Happy All Saints’ Day!)


catherine-siena-saint-paul-necklaceThis is a post in an on-going series called Catholic Aren’t Crazy exploring misconceptions Protestants have about Catholicism and lessons we can learn from them.

UPDATE: I responded to some critiques and gave some clarifications.

UPDATE II: Here’s the story of the Saint I pray to, Catherine of Siena.

Yesterday was Halloween. That makes today All Saints’ Day (read more about the history of these holidays in yesterday’s post).

All Saint’s Day has taken on different meanings for different groups of Christians. What seems to stay consistent, though, is that it is a celebration of the victory attained by those faithful Christians who have died. They are no longer pilgrims, as we are, but are the triumphant ones, having finished their race well and been brought into their peace with God. We celebrate Christ’s effectual victory over sin and death and that this has been granted to those that have gone before us.

The hope and encouragement in this holiday is not simply that we “remember” these saints, or meditate on their example. Instead (and this is important), there has been a long-held belief in the Christian Church that we still have a mystical communion and relationship with those saints that have already died. When Christians throughout Church history (and the Bible) have referred to “The Church”, they don’t simply mean those still around today, but all the saints who have ever lived (even in the Old Testament!). We are all the Church.

So we can truly celebrate those that have gone before us because we are truly still connected to them in a very real and vibrant way.

Now, I’m a good Protestant and all, and I absolutely believe in the fact that all Christians are Saints in God. I merely flirt with Catholicism (and even Orthodoxy), but I still think that one of the more mystical graces that many others in the global church embrace that many of us American Protestants do not is this: praying to saints.

I know, I know. It freaks us out. This is “worshipping saints”, right? Prayer is a pedestal only reserved for God, right? Well…

In my opinion, this comes from an oversimplification of the word “prayer”. Too many of us Protestants have this idea that “prayer” is only one thing: at it’s most profound, it’s a worshipful communing dialogue of praise and pleading where oneness is fostered in the Presence of one envelops the presence of the other; at it’s simplest, it’s a speaking to the only person who can answer those prayers, God. Neither of these definitions fit the idea of “praying to saints”.  But here is how The Catholic Catechism describes it:

On The intercession of the saints: Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness…. They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus…. So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped.

Does that sound like “worshipping saints”? Does that sound like “prayer” in the sense that we Protestants usually talk about it? I certainly don’t think so.

What if there was another type of prayer? Not a deep “soul-communing” or even an offering of praise, but just talking to those that have passed? (I wish there were a different word for it than “prayer”.) Can you accept that there may be a way to talk to dead saints that is not the same way we talk to God? I’m starting to think so.

Biblically, this comes from a few places that give two key impressions: (1) the dead still know what’s going on here on earth, and (2) they talk to God about it. (See below for examples.) If this is the case (the logic goes) why shouldn’t we be able to just talk to these people and ask them to talk to God for us? The Catechism never calls them “mediators” as if they’re a substitute for Jesus, neither do they give us salvation. They just have God’s ear.

For my own part, I have begun taking this practice into my life, and it’s been beautiful. Here was my idea: Each Church Year, I’ll look through lists of patron saints (here’s my favorite) and find one who really seemed to have a unique grace in an area of life that I could use some grace in. I would then read as much about them and their own writings as possible, meditating on their life, thought, and practice. I would pray to them, asking for them to intercede on my behalf with God. As you can see in the picture above, I ended up with St. Catherine of Siena, and I’ll introduce her to you next week.

With school and all, I haven’t been able to delve into her story and her writings like I want to, but it’s definitely what I want to do before moving on to someone else. But I have been praying to her. And you know what? I really have felt more empowered and “engraced”. I have felt that connection and kinship with St. Catherine. It has become very natural for me, and doesn’t seem like I’m “cheating on God” by doing something that’s only supposed to be reserved for Him. It’s a completely different type of “praying”.

If you want to take this practice on (and I encourage you to do so), feel free to check out lists of patron saints (they’re all over the web) or a great Christian in history or a family member who was especially strengthened by God in a way that you could really use. Pray to them. Get a picture of them or some sort of tangible object to help focus your thoughts, and just talk to them. Ask them to intercede for you at the throne of God. And then be confident that your prayer is not in vain. I’ll end with these summary words from the Catechism:

On Communion with the saints: It is not merely by the title of example that we cherish the memory of those in heaven; we seek, rather, that by this devotion to the exercise of fraternal charity the union of the whole Church in the Spirit may be strengthened. Exactly as Christian communion among our fellow pilgrims brings us closer to Christ, so our communion with the saints joins us to Christ, from whom as from its fountain and head issues all grace, and the life of the People of God itself.

Amen. Happy All Saints’ Day! Now go find one and pray to them!

***The most explicit references are in Revelation, where the 24 elders give God the prayers of the saints, as well as the martyrs under the altar of God, who see the suffering on earth and intercede for those below. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, you have the dead speaking to one another about the lives and souls of those alive. At the Transfiguration, dead Elijah and Moses are hanging out on the mountaintop. In the Old Testament, Saul is able to conjure up the spirit of the dead Samuel, seeking intercession. Other, little hints abound elsewhere.

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18 thoughts on “Catholics Aren’t Crazy: On Praying to Saints (Happy All Saints’ Day!)

  1. I think the scripture references that you provide at the end are inadequate evidence. For example, many scholars believe that Saul did not conjure up the prophet’s spirit, but rather an evil spirit. The story with Lazarus is just that– a story– more of an example used to illustrate Jesus’ teaching. And as for the martyrs in Revelation: surely it may be that they commune with God and intercede for us, but there is no evidence to suggest that they can hear our supplications to THEM. I’m not trying to nitpick, I just think that this doctrine is misguided, and has led to, among other things, praying to Mary and venerating her.

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    • Oh, i agree. if we’re looking for simple little “prooftexts”, they’re not there. that’s why I said that it is a logical deduction from a few strands in Scripture. I’m not saying that church history is the authority, but we do have to deal with the reality that most Christians through most of church history have done this practice, to great benefit. and so, though I’m not dogmatic at all about it, I think this is a potential wellspring of grace for us, for those whose consciences feel free to do it. as long as you’re not taking away worship from God, following idols, or treating saints as magical totems, I think we have a freedom to pursue this. And even if we (I) end up being wrong about it, I don’t think God’s posture towards us will be anger, but an understanding of us trying to avail ourselves of every means to get more of him. but at least for now, this is certainly edifying my soul. what do you think of this clarification? and thanks for commenting!

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  2. Thank you so much for this wonderful post! As a strong Catholic, it often saddens me that my non-Catholic brothers and sisters assume we worship the saints. Yes, I believe that some Catholics take this too far. However, we often ask holy people on earth to pray for us. Why would we not do so with those who are in heaven with God? It is not asking for their power but for them to pray along with us to God. We are joining together in praise, prayer, or petition.

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  3. Paul,

    I have been reading Fr. Jim Martin’s “A Jesuit’s Guide to Almost Everything” recently. In it he has an entire chapter dedicated to how Jesuit’s pray and how that may be different even from how mainstream Catholic’s pray. He touches on this idea of Catholic prayer (via intercession). Although it is seamless for me to understand how we pray, having been brought up in the Catholic Church, I like reading your take on how we (Catholics) pray. If you haven’t read Fr. Martin’s book, I recommend it. Even though the Jesuits are considered to be our most mainstream ‘leftists’ within the Catholic Church, Fr. Marin’s book has made me stop and think on more than one occasion. I also think that he writes well enough and wide enough that someone reading from a non-Catholic perspective will be able to at the very least enjoy some of his insights. Keep writing these insightful posts. I enjoy reading your well written and thoughtful insights.

    Doug Smith

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  4. This is a wonderful post! I have never seen an issue at all with praying to the Saints and most of my Protestant friends and family are too freaked out to even consider it but, like you’ve said, you do develop a natural and empowering communion with them as you develop that connection through prayer and readings. I am glad that you are enjoying it! The Church has a few tricks up her sleeves that, I believe, could truthfully enrich the Protestant practice!

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  5. I don’t get it. Why do I need to “pray” to saints when I have all the intercession and grace I need from Jesus himself? I just don’t need anyone to get God’s ear for me when he already gave it to me. On the other side, I do get encouragement, in my sanctification, from members of the Body of Christ. There are plenty of alive-on-earth people who I can talk to that also talk back to me who fill that role just fine. Likewise, it is cool to read the great stories of the faithful in church history, but simply knowing about them can be encouraging and rooting – I see no reason to use up time on some meditation practice that would take time away from my “real” praying to the Lord.

    “Do not multiply entities without good and sufficient reason” – I Ockam’s Razor this reformed culture pendulum swing!

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    • Oh! And David Schrott had an amazing comment on Facebook that speaks to this: “the Orthodox understanding is that post-resurrection, there is no “dead”. Christ died and yet we talk to him. The difference is the resurrection. The saints are more alive now than they were when they were “alive”.”

      I love that. Disagree?

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      • I would have to do more reading before I gave any real answer but my first impulse is that I do disagree. It sounds beautiful, but I think Jesus is the only one that is currently resurrected. We are living our already/not yet life only out of him. Everyone else gets resurrected with Christ’s return and in the meantime they are “asleep” “with the Lord.”

        To me, the “no dead idea” feels like that disembodied, heaven focused redemption that is present in Catholicism and also with those like the Baptists (how I grew up). I prefer the sturdier idea that humans and heaven is only a phase (not our most alive point) and that we are made for earth and the ultimate goal is the new earth with Jesus present.

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  6. Okay, now that I’m not at work and have enjoyed a relaxing evening with my lady, I can reply a little. I look at three things for this Saint-Praying idea:

    1. This is a logical (not exegetical) conviction based on logical conclusions drawn from various strands in Scripture. Just like the Trinity, restrictions on pre-marital sex, slavery abolition, etc. aren’t explicit exegetical, proof-texted principles, but are deduced from various strands throughout various texts. This doesn’t make them less valid, but it does mean that the classic Systematic-Theological principles of biblical hermeneutics aren’t the best place to go for this.

    2. I know this isn’t very Calvinist of me, but I lean more towards the “Normative Principle” in the Christian life, rather than the “Regulative Principle”. Crudely, the Regulative perspective says that we can ONLY employ in the Christian life those things that are explicitly ENDORSED in Scripture, whereas the Normative principle says that we can include anything as long as it’s not explicitly FORBIDDEN in Scripture and “as long as it is agreeable to the peace and unity of the Church”.

    3. To my knowledge, praying to (or rather “with” saints, as some people have corrected me) was the practice of the earliest Christians and most Christians throughout Church History. That’s not our ultimate authority, I know, but it’s not something that can be easily just written off. The earliest and first readers of the same Bible as us still felt absolutely free to pray to Saints without any problems.

    The three points above do not represent my case “for” praying to saints in a dogmatic sense, as if this represents the fullness of spiritual experience and that people that don’t do it are sinning or missing out. Rather, I see these points as simply legitimizing this practice as a valid option for Christians who feel free to do it.

    A lot of people of have responded to this post saying, more or less, “I have Jesus and living saints around me, why do I need dead saints?” To me, I simply ask why we need ANY means of grace in our lives. If Jesus is “enough”, why take Communion? Why sing hymns? Why talk about God with ANYONE, if Jesus is “all we need”.

    In His fullness, I believe he has filled this world with such a large kaleidoscope of ways He can give us grace. Everyone is wired differently, so that different means of grace stir us differently. If praying to saints isn’t your thing, then that’s great! My only goal in writing this was to open this up as one more frontier that Protestants can seek God in.

    Oh, and I think someone else here thought I (or Catholics) think that praying to Saints means getting some of their grace, or that THEY give you grace. Saint-Praying is not worshipful praying, and you’re not asking ANYTHING of those saints other than to interceded for you. They ask God to give us HIS Grace, not their own. They don’t mediate their presence to us, they are not “conjured” into our lives or experience. We don’t really “engage” with them in this practice. We simply talk to them, asking them to talk to God for us as we would anyone else. I have found this powerful and soul-stirring. You might think it’s silly. That’s fine. Don’t do it. I’m only advocating for us to open to those that do.

    That is all.

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  7. 1. I know you probably see me as in the hardcore Systematic camp, but generally I am not actually 🙂 I am not saying that I believe praying to saints is necessarily “wrong.”

    2. I also like a Normative principle, but anything in that camp, to me, needs both a listening ear to history and also a current day discernment. I get it that rational Calvinists can be too spare, but there is also a pendulum swing to the other side that should be considered.

    3. I think the to/with word change is a huge and altering distinction. If I thought the saints were talking to God right now (which I am not sure if I do) and I could join with them, then I like the idea of being connected to that great host of witnesses as I pray. That is an imaginative practice that could be really encouraging but where does it ground in reality? If we treat this as – I ask Brian to pray for me and I also ask St. Stephen (just making this up) to pray for me, why should this saint listen to me? With Brian, I am only assured he will pray for me because of our personal relationship. How will the saint know me or get my prayer? How does it get to him and not a different saint? How do I know he can even cares about being on the receiving end of these prayers? What if he does not know he is a saint since he was made a saint after death? I just have so many questions.

    Also, it is an oversimplification to say that I was in the “Jesus is all I need” camp. That is not what I was saying. I was speaking only to the intercession piece or “getting God’s ear” piece. There is a good deal in the Bible that does deal with this very explicitly and the strength of it seems to override more colloquial practices. This is when I would say – why do we need multiple entities when one is (more than) sufficient?

    It seems from what you said that in the kaleidoscope of the means of grace that you put praying to the saints on the same foot as corporate worship and communion? I would disagree.

    I remember when I lived in Spain for a bit the Catholics there said they prayed to saints because Jesus felt too intimidating – too high up for them. The saints were approachable. . . like them. It was easier for them to pray to the saints. I would say this practice actually hindered them from understanding their full identity in Christ and I, personally, would always be careful before I encourage possibly new believers to do something so peripheral.

    I don’t necessarily think this practice is “silly” or even wrong based on how you define it in the last paragraph, but I think it is a very very fine line to walk when thinking about the health of the church today. This might be a practice that encourages you, but I would carefully consider how and when you advocate it because people are going to be listening to you as a leader and unless the other and more central “means of grace” are in place, this particular practice could hinder someone’s faith.

    Thanks for creating these dialogues, Paul 🙂

    p.s. Do you think there have been some perversions of this idea in history or do you think that we (with our modern minds) have misunderstood what they were doing all along? You mentioned this as an early church practice but do you believe that as history played out this idea was ever taken in wrong directions?

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    • Katherine, sorry I didn’t say this earlier, but this is the best and most helpful comment I’ve gotten on this stuff. Seriously, thank you. And know that I was responding to a bunch of people at once, not you. I DEFINITELY wouldn’t put you in the Systematic Camp–that was specifically directed towards one guy on Facebook. And I wouldn’t put you in the “Jesus is all i need camp” in that simplistic sense either. Trust me, I have far more respect for you than that.

      When I said that, I was speaking more as it pertains to means of grace. You’re right, I shouldn’t have compared them to church or communion–that’s too far (although, in my defense, when I said “hymn singing”, I was referring to one’s personal enjoyment of hymns outside of church, not necessarily a church service ;). In the next post, linked to above, I give a different list. I say that this practice is no different than ” Bible memorization, fasting, listening to sacred music, or reading a devotional book.” That’s the level of “gravity” I place on this practice–again, not that much. Just an option.

      And if you were to ask both Brian and St. Stephen to pray for you, I think they would both have equal reason to do so: they are coheirs with you of Christ, and are in eternal communion and unity with you in the Beloved. That’s no less true of someone who has passed already than someone who still is in the body. In my humble opinion, of course, haha.

      And lastly, good lord yes!, these things can be abused. Your story about Spain is so incredibly saddening to me. One of my big beefs with Catholic leadership is how they don’t seem to actually TEACH their people anything. They have such far more nuanced and beautiful theology than most of their laypeople have any idea of. That’s how you get Catholic individuals believing in works-based salvation, worship of Mary, and salvation by baptism. That’s not Church teaching, but it’s a level of nuance that’s NEVER communicated. So yeah, it can be dangerous and be abused. But so can the doctrine of salvation by grace alone. 😉

      As for whether I should have posted this or not….well, welcome to my near-daily agony before posting a blog post. I take that weight very seriously, which is why I’ve been doing this practice for the better part of a year before writing this or breathing a word about it to almost anyone. I tested it out on some people who were receptive to (what I thought was) a balanced and distinctly Protestant way of looking at it, and so I went for it on the blog. I did not anticipate the level of engagement with it. I certainly don’t want to be the guy that just goes for shocking and causing fights. Thanks for keeping me honest.

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  8. Pingback: Meet Catherine of Siena, the Saint I Pray To. | Prodigal Paul | the long way home

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