Dear Father Joe: My friends who are not Catholic say we should only pray to God and that praying to saints is idolatry. Why should we pray to saints?
This is a great question and can really lead us to some good ideas, so let’s get right to it!
First, let’s be clear about something – when we pray to saints, we are not offering them the worship due to God. We are asking the saints to pray to God for us.
Now that we’ve established that, let’s look at the importance of asking anyone to pray: Why do that? Why ask my friend to pray for me? Why not just go to God? Doesn’t that violate the idea of going directly to God?
Not at all. We ask each other to pray for so many reasons, but let’s start with the most important reason: We ask people to pray for us because Scripture requires it. Let’s look at I Timothy 2:1-6:
First of all, then, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth. For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as ransom for all.
Since God’s command to pray for each other is followed by the reminder that Jesus is the only mediator, we can be at peace that these two ideas are not mutually exclusive: Jesus is the only mediator and we are commanded to pray for each other. Scripture is filled with commands from God for us to pray for each other and we never hesitate to do that (I hope!).
We also ask each other to pray because doing so unites us as Christ’s body on earth. When I know what you need, when I know what you are struggling with and what is causing you pain, I am with you in a way I can’t be otherwise. When I take your prayers into my heart and offer them to God, you are in my heart – your need or hurt becomes a part of me. By asking each other to pray, we are allowing the Holy Spirit to strengthen the bonds between us.
Another reason we ask each other to pray is found in the Gospel of Luke. In Luke 18:1-8 (look it up!), Jesus gives us a unique and rather funny parable about how we should be tenacious in our prayer; we should, in a sense, pester God with our needs and petitions. By asking others to pray for us, we can “storm the gates of heaven” and do just what Jesus has us do: multiply the requests to God who loves us and wants to hear our voices.
There are many more reasons we ask each other to pray, but I think we’ve got the point: We pray for each other all the time and rarely hesitate to ask others to pray for us. The issue for some appears to be a rather key tenet of Christianity: the resurrection of the dead.
As Catholics, we believe in the resurrection of the dead. We believe that, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, there are people in heaven that we call saints. We believe they are alive and active and living in the presence of God in a way that we cannot yet do. Since we believe that, we ask them to pray for us.
To be clear, questioning the prayers of the saints is a rather new thing in Christianity. In the first 1,600 years of our beautiful faith, the practice of seeking the intercession of the saints was not questioned and was a common practice. Some would even say it is a core practice of the Church. It is a relatively new thing that anyone is questioning it. The good thing about this new challenge to Christianity is that it is causing us to pause and look at the why. In so doing, we grow in thanksgiving for our faith.
Let’s look at Scripture. Does Scripture forbid us praying to saints? Quite the opposite! There are a few places in Sacred Scripture that offer us some affirmation about asking the saints to pray for us, the most obvious being in the Book of Revelation. Check out Revelation 5:8: In this passage, the Apostle John has a vision of heaven. In that vision, he saw the saints in heaven holding our prayers in their hands and letting those prayers rise up to God! Beyond that, in Revelation 8:3-4, we see more images of the saints offering the prayers of the faithful to God.
A bit earlier in this article, I wrote about how praying for each other unites us to each other. I invite us, in this moment, to see that the same principle is true when we ask the saints to pray for us. It is a beautiful and life-giving gift from God. In seeking to have our needs met, we also receive the presence of that saint’s pure, unfiltered love for God into our soul. When we ask a saint to pray for us, our prayers and needs place us firmly in their hearts, and their hearts firmly in ours. This blessed interchange is a gift that we should receive with joy.
We believe asking each other for prayers is important, necessary and even commanded by God. We believe in the resurrection of the dead. These two ideas come together and guide us to understand that not only are we allowed to ask the saints to pray for us, we are required to do so.
Ask the saints to pray for you – God commands it and we need it!
Enjoy another day in God’s presence!