Last week (February 14, 2014), my local paper – The Birmingham News – published an article critical of Catholics and their devotion to the saints. The article suggested that we don’t really need the saints. It argued that Christians should pray to God on their own and not ask the saints for prayer. As a convert to Catholicism, I thought the article really missed the point of devotion to the saints. I would now like to explain why.
In the Bible (especially in the book of Ephesians) we learn that God wants to do more than save individuals. He wants to create a new human community, a family of God. We call this family the Church. This community is not like a normal human society. It is a supernatural community that transcends time and space. It encompasses everyone who is joined to Christ through faith – those on earth as well as those in heaven. It is a communion of love. In it, we support one another especially through prayer. As St. James says, “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another.” (James 5:16)
We find a beautiful picture of this community in the Book of Revelation. The biblical writer depicts angels and saints in heaven, “elders” who have already passed through death. These saints are praying and worshipping God and offering up the prayers of those still on earth. (Revelation 5:8; Revelation 8:3) It is a picture of the next life we also find reflected in Jewish literature from before the time of Christ. (2 Maccabees 15:12-16; Tobit 12:12-15)
This biblical picture of the Church explains why the earliest Christians found no difficulty asking for the prayers of the saints. This wasn’t a distraction from Christ. It was proof that the faithful on earth and the faithful in Heaven are still joined through Christ in holy friendship. Nor was devotion to the saints something that medieval Catholics made up. Even Protestant historians like Joachim Jeremias and secular historians like Peter Brown recognize that the practice is of Jewish origins. It reflects a thoroughly Hebraic, biblical, and communal picture of salvation. (Passages like 2 Kings 13:20-21 show how old these attitudes are.)
Peter Brown also notes that pagans in Rome were perplexed by Christian devotion to the saints and their relics. Early Christians worshipped in cemeteries, catacombs, and among the dead. This was something pagans did not do. But the pagans failed to grasp why Christians did this. The earliest Christians believed in resurrection: the dead in Christ will rise again. Devotion to the saints and their relics witnessed to this faith. For Catholic Christians, death does not have the last word.
Again, devotion to the saints is not something that appeared in the middle ages. It’s been part of Christianity from the beginning. Nor is it simply a Roman Catholic practice. Wherever you look in the ancient Christian world – Latin, Greek, Syriac, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Malabar (Indian), Assyrian (Persian), Catholic or Orthodox – we find devotion to the saints. Consistent opposition to the practice arose only in the Protestant Reformation – some 1500 years after the resurrection of Christ.
Some non-Catholics wonder, “Why bother praying to saints? Why not just pray directly to God?” This objection simply doesn’t do justice to Catholic belief and practice. Of course Catholics pray directly to God! But biblical religion is a corporate affair. We pray directly to God, but we also pray and suffer for one another. St. Paul says we are Christ’s co-laborers. (2 Corinthians 6:1) He could even say, “I fill up in my own flesh whatever is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.” (Colossians 1:24)
The Bible says the church is “a mystery.” (Ephesians 5:32) One great mystery is why God would use men to accomplishes his purposes. God can give grace and forgiveness to each one directly, of course, but he also chooses to use human instruments. Christ told his apostles, “Whoever sins you forgive are forgiven.” (John 20:23). “What you bind on earth is bound in heaven.” (Matt. 18:18). God struck down St. Paul, but then sent him to Ananias to be baptized. (Acts 9:11-19)
One reason for this great mystery is that Christ wants to identify with us in the work of salvation. He identifies with us so closely that whatever you do to Christians, you do to Christ. When Saul was persecuting the infant Church, Jesus said to him, “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4) The early church father St. Gregory of Nyssa once said, “He who beholds the church really beholds Christ.” This captures the logic of Christian devotion to the saints. We do not worship the saints. We venerate Christ in his members.
If you are a non-Catholic Christian, we commend you for praying to God. By all means keep on praying! But Catholics are not wrong to love our brothers and sisters in heaven, or for also believing that they love and pray for us. Catholics and non-Catholics alike ask Christian friends to pray for them. How much more our Christian friends in heaven! Scripture says they do, and so does the unbroken practice of Christian faith down through the centuries.