This month marks the one year anniversary of the passing of an extraordinary man, Fr. Arne Panula. While I never met him personally, I am deeply indebted to this wonderful man.
My closest encounter with Fr. Arne was when he led the 2017 National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in a closing prayer, just weeks before his death. I remember wondering who he was, this man who received a standing ovation simply for walking onto the stage. I decided I needed to find out more about him.
About five years ago Fr. Arne, along with the leadership of Washington, DC’s Catholic Information Center, founded the Leonine Forum, a year-long formation program designed for young professionals seeking to integrate Catholic social teaching into their civic and professional lives. It brings together brilliant speakers like George Weigel, Mary Hasson and Arthur Brooks to share the eternal – and still highly relevant – wisdom of the Catholic Church on everything from business ethics to fighting poverty. The program now exceeds 200 young professionals and has even spread to New York City. Many alumni of this program, are leaders in the public, private and nonprofit sector in DC and beyond. And it’s because of the Leonine Forum that I am indebted to Fr. Arne.
I just recently finished my own year in this extraordinary program. The relationships I have formed, the knowledge I have gained, the deeper relationship with Jesus and his Church are all directly a result of Fr. Arne’s vision. It is an honor to be a part of his legacy. And yet, I have no way to thank him.
Who can I pray to?
In considering what I owe Fr. Arne, I felt sad that I could not reach out and say, “Thank you.” He has, after all, passed on. Then I realized: isn’t this what is meant by “the communion of saints?”
I asked a couple friends if it is okay to pray to someone who is not a saint recognized by the church. Of course, we always have to be careful when we pray to saints, recognized as such or not. We do not really pray “to” saints, but rather we ask for their intercession, just as we might ask a friend or relative to pray for us today.
The answer I got from my friends was a resounding yes. One friend made the practical point that if no one ever prayed for the help of non-canonized saints, there would be no such thing as a saint recognized by the church. It takes miracles, obtained through the prayers of the faithful, for a holy person to be recognized as a saint by the church.
For example, one of the miracles that propelled St. Theresa of Calcutta – known in her earthly life as Mother Theresa – to sainthood was one man’s miraculous cure from a deadly bacterial infection in his brain. While he lingered in a coma, his wife prayed to Mother Theresa for her help. Before the surgeons could even operate on her husband, he was up and talking. This and other signs and miracles, obtained through prayer and belief, are the basis for our saints’ canonizations. You cannot have one without the other.
The Church says . . .
This is a topic, of course, which has been discussed by minds that are more enlightened than mine or those of my friends. In this Catholic Answers article, Tim Staples takes apart a few of the reasons non-Catholics may have for avoiding praying to the saints. Chief among them is the idea that “communicating with the dead” is forbidden by the Bible; and yet we have the example of the Transfiguration to show us this may not mean what it seems.
During the Transfiguration, Jesus went up to the top of a mountain with a few of his closest disciples. There, he is “transfigured,” becoming full of light, revealing his divinity, and conversing with two (deceased) figures from the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah. If any form of communication with the dead, initiated by a living, earthbound person is forbidden, then Jesus himself would be in trouble.
As Staples points out, “Some may say, ‘Well, he’s God, so he can do that.’ Yes, he is. But he is also fully man and we are called to imitate him. If Jesus initiated communication with the dead, there is no reason to believe followers of Jesus cannot do the same. This is precisely what we mean as Catholics when we say we ‘pray to the saints’.”
Another Catholic Answers article, Praying to the Saints, further addresses common questions when it comes to the validity and good of praying to the dead. Can they hear us? Is it okay to pray to the dead? Ultimately, all of these questions have been answered by the Church. Church teaching is that those who have passed on can hear us because God allows them to hear us. They join our prayers to their prayers on our behalf.
Saints known and unknown
But what about those holy people we have known in life who are never recognized by the Church? Are they any less able to intercede for us?
A few years ago on All Saints Day, when we pray for the intercession of “all saints known and unknown,” I asked my friend Cajethan what “unknown” meant. After all, we have a clear process for canonization. What saint would be unknown?
He introduced me to the idea that often people who have lived wonderfully holy, virtue-filled lives never make it to the official canon of saints. I think we can plausibly argue that more often than not, this is the case. Perhaps these people simply lived small, humble, obscure lives in their corner of the world. And yet, by their example, they were witnesses to Christ and catalysts for the spiritual growth of others.
Cajethan told me that in the Nigerian village where he grew up, there was a very spiritual and Christ-like man, recognized by the townsfolk as truly holy during his lifetime. “Surely this man is a saint!” they said when he died. And at his funeral, the crowd was overwhelmed by the inexplicable smell of roses coming from his coffin.
And what about all those martyrs we will never know? Given the level of violence against Christians throughout history, including to the present day, we will never know all the individual martyrs who have died for the faith and have become ‘unknown’ saints. From the early Christian martyrs in the Roman coliseum, to the forests of Vietnam, to small towns in the middle east, the Church is full of the names of those who died for the faith – it’s just that we do not know their names.
The two-way street of prayer
So, many holy people remain hidden to wider renown – just like Jesus in the first 30 years of his life. And maybe you know someone who, in your life together on earth, showed that same witness to Christ and great personal holiness. I think here of my grandmother, who was not only the kindest and most loving person I knew, but the most devout. Maybe you had a favorite nun at the Catholic school you attended as a child, a neighbor who was like family, a saintly Sunday school teacher, or a mother who sacrificed all. Why would they not now, in Heaven, as in life on this earth, care for you? Why should we not be able to carry on the conversation, and know their love for us?
I feel sentimentally about praying to saints. I have a peculiar feeling – not substantiated by any church teaching that I know of, but nonetheless, it rings true for me – that the saints need and like for us to pray for them. It is an act of faith that shows we are all a part of Christ’s body and the kingdom of God; it is a sign that no one is forgotten. And what kind of consolation can be gained from speaking with our brother, our neighbor, or our childhood priest, as if they were still a part of our lives? It is a signal that death does not permanently separate us.
Death cannot separate us
If we believe in the power of saints to intercede in our lives, then there is benefit to praying to those non-canonized, particularly if it leads to their being better known. If Fr. Arne were ever to become a saint, then he would no longer belong to just those who knew him, he would become an intercessor for everyone. Why would our saints not find joy in being an intercessor for more people? As Saint Therese put it, why would they not also spend their time in Heaven doing good on earth?
Although I never met Fr. Arne, I cannot regret it, because I have the blessing of experiencing his legacy, and more importantly, of getting to know him as a prayerful intercessor. This is a special thought: that even in death, we are not fully separated from those we love – canonized saint or not. God ensures that we feel His enduring love through their intercession for all time.
You can learn more about Fr. Arne Panula by watching an EWTN tribute, reading George Weigel’s “Easter and the Panula Option,” written just before his passing; Mary Eberstadt’s tribute, “Did You Ever Think You’d Known a Saint;” and Hadley Arkes’s article, “What Father Arne Shaped.” You could also consider making a donation to the Catholic Information Center in Washington, DC, over which Fr. Arne served as Director in the last ten years of his life, and which continues to be the center of a vibrant Catholic community in our nation’s capital, and “the closest tabernacle to the White House.”