One of the major criticisms that Catholics often receive from most Protestants and others outside of the faith is that we worship the saints. The usual assertion is that Catholics are idolatrous for believing that a Christian can or should communicate with a “dead” person in heaven, and that we are wrong in thinking that anyone in heaven could or would care to intercede for us. This is often supported by quoting prohibitions in the Old Testament against idolatry in Exodus 20: 3-6 and necromancy in Deuteronomy 18: 10-11. In all charity, these complaints come from a misunderstanding of Catholic teaching and a sincere desire not to offend God. This article will attempt to provide reasons for what we believe, using only Scripture–something not required by Scripture itself, but often a “requirement” of discussions with our separated brethren. Let’s dive in!
Prayer and Worship
One great area of misunderstanding I believe arises from the different concepts that Catholics and Protestants have about what constitutes “worship.” Those who separated from the Catholic Church in the Reformation, and in later digressions, deliberately shunned two key Catholic underpinnings: the sacraments of Holy Orders and the Eucharist. While some Protestants, such as certain Anglicans and Lutherans, have retained a “high church” liturgical worship style, underneath the hood they simply do not believe in the priesthood or the concept of making Jesus’ one-time sacrifice present on the altar. The underlying idea of “worship,” whether it’s formal or informal, became simply an exercise of Scripture reading, preaching, and prayer of thanksgiving and praise. These are good things which originated from the Catholic Tradition, but they fall short of what the Catholic Church would call latria, or adoration given to God alone through. It has more in common with dulia, the Catholic concept of veneration through prayer. Again, the intentions are sincere, and the intention is to give adoration to God, but it still falls short of latria as we understand it. That being said, it’s easy to understand why Protestants see zealous veneration of the saints (especially the hyperdulia of the Blessed Virgin Mary) and mistake it for worship, which is due to God alone. The point which should be made in any conversation about this is that these concepts predate the Reformation–it was the deliberate choice of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and so many others to jettison these ideas.
Some will ask how we know that the Lord’s Supper is indeed a sacrifice. Putting patristric quotes and ancient liturgical forms aside, Scripture is clear on this. For example the Gospels, St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 and Romans 15: 15-16, and the author of Hebrews are all absolutely clear that Jesus’ death on the Cross, the Last Supper, and the “Breaking of the Bread” are all associated with liturgy celebrated by Christians in the nascent Church.
Shekinah: The Glory Cloud
“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:4-8)
God has become accessible to us. He is our friend. He is our brother. He is our bridge and our path to share in His Divinity:
I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” (John 15: 15)
I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15: 5)
For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. (Romans 12:4)
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39)
The author of Hebrews confirms that we are unified with the souls of just men made perfect in Heaven:
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:22-24.)
Can They See Us?
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12: 1-2)
We also see the saints in Heaven interacting with the acts of prayer of the living:
When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. (Revelation 5:8)
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. (Revelation 8:3-4)
Isn’t It Necromancy?
First of all, no, it is not necromancy. Necromancy is the summoning of the dead, by the power of evil, for the purpose of “divining” the future. Prayers to the saints are not by the power of evil. As we illustrated with Scripture above, we communicate with others that are members of the Body of Christ through the Head who is Jesus. And we do not seek, request, or expect any knowledge of the future. We are simply trusting those holy men and women that have gone before us to intercede in prayer on our behalf with almighty God. We know that those in heaven are righteous (see Hebrews 12) and that God does listen to the prayers of the righteous man:
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. (1 Peter 3:12a)
When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears, and rescues them from all their troubles. (Psalm 34:17)
The Lord is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous. (Proverbs 15:29)
Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. (James 5:6)
One in the Body of Christ
Prayer for one another is something that God wants us to do. St. Paul explains this in 1 Timothy 2:1-5. Interestingly enough, Protestants will often quote verse 5 to show that there are no other intercessors before God. Sharing verses 1-4 with them in response is often an eye-opening experience. Of course, both are true. We intercede for one another (on earth and in heaven) precisely because Jesus is the mediator before the Father!
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; thsere is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus…. (1 Timothy 2:1-5)
So, it’s very clear that interacting with our brothers and sisters in faith, even when they are with Jesus in the Heaven, is not idolatry: we don’t offer sacrifice to them or adore them as we do the Father at Mass. It isn’t necromancy either: we aren’t invoking the spirits of the dead through the Devil to discern the future. We are interacting with other members of the Body of Christ, through the Head, Jesus. We are one family, not separated by the veil of death. Because they are forever alive in Jesus, by His power they remain aware of us and participate in the economy of salvation by offering prayer to the Father, through Jesus on our behalf. Without Jesus it simply wouldn’t be possible or serve any purpose. I hope that with the information presented above you are able to engage in a biblical discussion with our separated brethren to explain the Catholic Tradition of praying to the Saints.