Continuing last week’s theme of answering a protestant’s questions about Catholic teachings and practices, this week we will look at the Catholic practice of asking the saints to intercede for us before the Throne of God.
In the years during which I have been assisting people who are inquiring about the Catholic faith, I have often encountered questions about the practices of Catholic devotion to Mary and praying to the saints. Many times I have been told that these two practices are among the most difficult for protestnts to overcome. These potential converts have much less difficulty with the Dogma of the Real Presence and the theology of the Catholic Mass. Their questions might go something like the following:
“Why do Catholics pray to Mary and the saints in heaven. Aren’t they dead and doesn’t the bible teach us not to attempt to communicate with the dead? Also, isn’t Jesus the one mediator between God and man? Doesn’t Catholic prayer to the saints take away from Christ as the one mediator?”
Before these questions can be answered, it is necessary to understand what is meant by the Catholic teaching on the “Communion of Saints”. This communion, is at its most essential meaning, the sharing of (or communicating of) the grace of Jesus Christ with and among His family members, the Church. [cf. CCC ¶ 946 – 948]
The Communion of Saints Defined
CCC ¶ 948 – The term “communion of saints” therefore has two closely linked meanings: “communion in holy things (sancta)” and “among holy persons (sancti).” Sancta sanctis! (“God’s holy gifts for God’s holy people”) is proclaimed by the celebrant in most Eastern liturgies during the elevation of the holy Gifts before the distribution of communion. The faithful (sancti) are fed by Christ’s holy body and blood (sancta) to grow in the communion of the Holy Spirit (koinonia) and to communicate it to the world.
This is a very beautiful and important doctrine. The Communion of Saints is, therefore, the Church, the Family of God, and an organic reality. St. Paul refers to this “Mystical Body of Christ” in Colosians 1:24 where he equates Christ’s “body” with His “church”. Notice that St. Paul rejoices in his suffering which he associates with the suffering of Christ. Seen in this light, he then states that his suffering is of value to the church, Christ’s body.
Colossians 1:24-26 (RSV-CE) – Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints.
St. Paul has some very interesting things to say about this Mystical Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:
- The body is one, even though it is made up of many members.
- The weaker members of the body are indispensible.
- Those members that appear to be less honorable are given the greatest honor.
- There can be no discord in the body, all members must care for one another.
- If one member suffers, all the members suffer; and, if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
- We have been baptized into one body and we are all individually members of that body.
As can be seen from the above summary and the full text of the passage below, the Mystical Body, what is expressed by the “Communion of Saints”, is not simply an analogy, but a Divine reality.
1 Corinthians 12:12-27 (RSV-CE) – For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
In Colossians 1:18, St. Paul refers to Christ as the “head of the body, the church”. Just as the human body is so ordered as to be able to provide for its nourishment, so too does Christ provide for us. We who are baptised into this one body, whose head is Christ, resemble Christ, for He communicates His divine life and grace to us through the sacraments He instituted and so provides for our nourishment.
CCC ¶ 947 – “Since all the faithful form one body, the good of each is communicated to the others. . . . We must therefore believe that there exists a communion of goods in the Church. But the most important member is Christ, since he is the head. . . . Therefore, the riches of Christ are communicated to all the members, through the sacraments.” “As this Church is governed by one and the same Spirit, all the goods she has received necessarily become a common fund.”
Usually, I can help people who are searching get to this point without too much difficulty. The problem now is to erase the notion that there must be some kind of line of demarcation separating the “saints in heaven” and the “saints on earth”. The question might now be raised again:
But what about those who have died? Certainly you believe it is sinful to communicate with the dead? How could we anyway? I accept what the Church teaches as far as it goes for believing, baptized Christians who have not died and left this world for their eternal reward. But how does the Church justify extending this to those who have died?
That is a reasonable question… well, Jesus died… and He rose from the dead. And He has promised that we too who die in His grace, have life beyond the grave. Indeed, those who have died are closer to Christ than are we who remain alive on this earth. We must remember that when we die, we continue to exist as living human beings; our souls and bodies are temporarily separated, to be reunited on the last day at the resurrection of the body. But if we die in a state of grace, we enter heaven, either immediately or after being cleansed of any remaining imperfections and temporal punishments due to sin. If we die “saved”, that is, in a state of sanctifying grace, we continue to be members of the Mystical Body of Christ beyond our deaths.
The Church has traditionally taught that the Body of Christ is comprised of three categories of Saints who share in this “common union”:
- The Church Militant – saints who are alive on earth
- The Church Suffering – saints who are being perfected in purgatory
- The Church Triumphant – saints who are “in heaven” participating in the Beatific Vision… seeing God as He is, face to Face.
Those who have departed this life in grace are spiritually alive and awaiting the resurrection of their bodies
Mary and all the saints in heaven are alive and are members of His one body… they continue to share in all ways as St. Paul taught, except their suffering is over and they see God more clearly than do we on earth who see only partially. Even those saints in Purgatory are alive. And in particular, all the saints who have departed remain intercessors on behalf of the Church not yet in Glory, just as all of us on earth should do – doing as St. Paul urged all of us to do – to make supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings for all men and women, that they may live a godly and peaceable life. [cf. 1 Timothy 2:1-2 (RSV-CE)]
So, all the saints, those on this earth and those who have departed, are members of the one Mystical Body of Christ – the Church. Ephesians 5, 2 Corinthians 11 and Revelation (Apocalypse) 19 speak of Christ as the bridegroom of the Church. The Church is a Divine institution with a visible body and an invisible soul (the Holy Spirit). This organic reality can no more be divided in essence than can be God. Jesus is not the bridegroom of multiple “persons”, the saints on earth and the saints in heaven – he is bridegroom to the one Church.
The bible teaches that we are to ask (pray to) those in heaven to both pray with us and for us. Those in heaven, assist the Lamb as He intercedes for us, bringing before the Throne of God our prayers.
Psalm 103:20-22 (RSV-CE): Bless the LORD, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, hearkening to the voice of his word! Bless the LORD, all his hosts, his ministers that do his will! Bless the LORD, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the LORD, O my soul!
Psalm 148:1-2 (RSV-CE): Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens, praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels, praise him, all his host!
Revelation 5:6-8 (RSV-CE): And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth; and he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; And the angels, too, carry our prayers to God’s Throne…
Revelation 8:3-4 (RSV-CE): And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God.
But isn’t Christ the one Mediator? Doesn’t this idea of having others intercede or pray for us take away from Christ as the one mediator between God and man? Why should I bother with asking others to pray for me, why don’t I just go directly to God?
Of course Jesus Christ is the one mediator, but asking others for their help, especially asking them for their prayers, does not take anything away from Chirst. Our ability to intercede for one another rests on Christ the One Mediator who calls us to pray for one another. And the “power” of the saints in heaven to hear and answer our prayers also rests on Christ’s power and authority. All Christians ask others on earth to pray for them all the time. Remember that St. Paul urged us to pray for one another [cf. 1 Timothy 2:1-2 (RSV-CE)]. Don’t you ask people on earth to pray for you? Don’t you likewise pray for others? Asking a saint who is in heaven to pray for us does not take away from Christ’s mediation any more than does asking someone you know on earth to pray for you. This is not an either/or, it is a both/and. Surely you want others to pray for you, especially the righteous in heaven, whose prayers avail us much and are of great power in their effect! [cf. James 5:16 (RSV-CE)]
CCC ¶ 970 – “Mary’s function as mother of men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power. But the Blessed Virgin’s salutary influence on men . . . flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it, and draws all its power from it.” “No creature could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer; but just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by his ministers and the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is radiated in different ways among his creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source.”
But isn’t attention to Mary and the saints a distraction? If I am giving attention to Mary, I am neglecting the Lord, right?
Absolutely not. When you give honor and attention to Mary, you give honor to Jesus. Remember that she is also a member of the Body of Christ and St Paul says we care for one another. If Jesus is both your King and your friend… and your brother, how does he feel when His subjects, His friends, His brothers and sisters neglect and ignore His mother… the very same mother He gave to us all from the Cross [cf. John 19:26 (RSV-CE) and CCC ¶ 967-970]. How would he feel if those in heaven did not care enough for those on earth to pray for them? Intercesory prayer does not end at death. Read Hebrews 12 to see the saints in heaven, described as that great cloud of witnesses who surround us, cheering us on as we race towards the Heavenly Jerusalem. These, we are told, are the angelic beings and the “assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven… the spirits of the just made perfect”.
Neither our attention to the saints on earth, in purgatory or in heaven a distraction. After all, we are a family, the Family of God, and as such we are taught by the Church and in Scripture to care for one another. Scripture records it, the Church proclaims it and my life has experienced it. “Hearken to the voice of his word.” Amen and AMEN!
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