Sunday, November 1, 2009

For all the saints

One of the biggest misconceptions I run into on the subject of the saints of the church concerns why we catholics invoke the names of saints in our prayers.
Note: I did not capitalized the word "catholic." In this sense it means "universal." I use the term expansively to include Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, other "flavors" of Catholics, Anglicans/Episcopalians, and the various "flavors" of the Orthodox faith who are creedal rather than confessional expressions of Christianity.
I had some folks from more Protestant traditions tell me that we catholics are idolators for "praying to the saints and not God." Others tell me they believe in the communion of saints, but that means only the community of believers on earth and does not include the dead. Some have even implied that invoking the name of a long departed saint is somehow linked to occult behavior and necromancy. So, on the occasion of All Saints Day, I thought I'd set the record straight on this.

First, we don't "pray to the saints and not to God." We pray with the saints and that is a huge difference. Take for example the prayer often called the "Hail Mary." While it is a prayer to Mary, it is not asking for Mary to do anything which she did not do while she was on earth. Check it out:

Hail Mary, Full of Grace, The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.
The opening words are the angelic greeting Gabriel gave to Mary when he announced she was pregnant (Luke 1:28). But notice what we ask Mary to do - "pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death." We are asking Mary to pray for us, nothing outside the realm of her abilities while she was among us on earth.

In the catholic faith, we believe we are surrounded by a "great cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1) which include the saints on earth and the saints in heaven. We believe the ultimate reality of God falls outside the realms of space, time, and physicality. If we believe in the resurrection of the dead, why would we not believe they are able to pray for us and with us?

I think of it more like an extension of how we think of prayer amongst our faith communities. Asking a saint to pray for you and with you is no different than asking the people at your church to hold you in prayer. It's not communicating with the dead in the occult sense and it isn't praying to the saints instead of God. It's joining the saints at all times and in all places in praising God and caring for each other.

2 comments:

David Winfrey said...

Do you believe that Mary's prayers are more effective than, say, those of your own deceased relatives, or those of your still-living pastor?

Prayers to/with/through/etc. saints seem a little odd to me; in my Methodist experience, we don't generally mention the saints very much, except occasionally as good examples of piety, obedience, faith, good works, and so forth.

BTW, I stopped by your bazaar this morning, and bought some children's Bible study books. It was quite a nice little bazaar. The chili dogs and brownies were quite good, but I still prefer Methodist coffee.

Reverend Mom said...

I'm not sure I'd frame this as a question of whose prayers are "more effective" or "less effective." To me, that feels like using some sort of "worthiness yardstick" to decide ascetic efficaciousness and that's a judgment I'm not willing to make.

Suffice it to say that I believe the prayers of the faithful are effective ... period! And if we confess a faith in the Communion of Saints and the resurrection of the dead, why not ask others to join you in prayer?

I agree that prayers "to" or "through" a saint are odd and I daresay inappropriate for a Christian. Our prayers, ultimately, are directed to God alone and through either the name of Jesus or the Trinity.

I can related to your Methodist experience. For the past year, I've served part-time in a Methodist congregation as a visitation minister. The saints are generally not discussed - with the exception of All Saints Day (a holdover from those Anglican Wesley brothers!).

Glad you made it over to the bazaar and you are right ... we Episcopalians have trouble with coffee (and I say that as a former Lutheran!).