At the Easter Vigil Mass, my mother joined the Catholic Church. During the preparation class she learned that she would be confirmed under the name of a saint of her choice, a saint she who would be, for her, an example, a mentor and a prayer warrior in her journey to heaven. My mother chose St. Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist—an elderly woman, who miraculously carried in her womb the first person to recognize Jesus as Lord.
Some of the members of her class had difficulty with this practice. They felt that praying to a saint either diminished Christ and His work or raised the saint to the level of God—and that, of course, is idolatry.
When I was a Protestant, I frequently asked someone to pray for me. I would also thank them for their prayers that were answered on my behalf. But I certainly never thought of going to anyone in heaven for help. I did know that the writer of Hebrews, after telling the stories of Old Testament saints in Chapter 11, said in 12:1-2a, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us, while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.” At that time I viewed this great crowd of witnesses only as spectators, rooting for me and cheering for me. It never occurred to me that, in heaven as on earth, they would continue to be prayer warriors—praying for me to the Father. I certainly did not ask them to pray for me, or thank them for any answers to prayer.
To a Catholic, prayers to saints are no different from asking our friends to pray for us. Since I became Catholic, Hebrews 12 has literally come alive for me with a depth and meaning I never appreciated before. These saints are not just spectators of my life. They are actively praying for me, bringing my needs before the Father in heaven—and they are certainly closer to the Father’s ear than Joe Schmo in the pew! Their lives are a fulfillment of my goal—to be with God in heaven—and they want that for me even more than I do! This does not diminish Christ. Rather, Christ is honored when His body functions as it should.
The logic of all this seems pretty easy to grasp. So why is there such a problem? Some say it is because there is no example of praying to saints in Scripture. That is true, but it is not decisive. Catholics draw truth from Sacred Tradition as well as from Sacred Scripture. Remember there was no New Testament canon until the Church determined its final form around 400 AD. Before as well as after that time, the Church followed St. Paul’s command to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.” (II Thessalonians 2:15) Many of the early Church fathers wrote about these oral traditions of the Apostles, including the practice of asking the faithful departed to pray for them. Here are just two examples:
Clement of Alexandria (Miscellanies 7:12 [A.D. 208])
"In this way is he [the true Christian] always pure for prayer. He also prays in the society of angels, as being already of angelic rank, and he is never out of their holy keeping; and though he prays alone, he has the choir of the saints standing with him [in prayer]".
Origen (Prayer 11 [A.D. 233])
"But not the high priest [Christ] alone prays for those who pray sincerely, but also the angels . . . as also the souls of the saints who have already fallen asleep".
How I love the communion of the saints practiced in the Catholic Church! When we were evangelical protestant missionaries in Hong Kong, my husband was having serious health problems for which we could find no treatment or cure. He tried different medications, changes in diet, lifestyle and even psychiatric help. Nothing seemed to help. Then one day, when our mission held a special day of prayer, we asked a missionary friend to come to our home and pray for us. She went through every room, casting out any demons and protecting our home from any curses that may have been put on it. (Our kitchen window looked out onto five ancestral temples.) After that day, my husband never had his problem again. Never. He was completely free. I can assure you, if we ever had that problem again, we would certainly seek her help. This is a perfect example of the communion of saints on earth. As a Catholic, I would still go to her, even if she was deceased. In Heaven, she is more alive than I am here on earth. And, I would thank her and give her the credit for helping me! This is the communion of saints in action.
Until the Protestant Reformation, there was never any controversy about praying to saints. Why should there be? The early Christians believed the words of the Apostles Creed. “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” I believe these words too. The communion of saints is surely one of my greatest Catholic treasures.
Read this next: The Treasure of Sevens
Melanie Frei was an evangelical Protestant missionary to Hong Kong with her husband Tom, pastor and seminary professor. But when they studied Scripture and Church history, the two of them decided to leave their ministry and enter the Roman Catholic Church. Melanie is the mother of three incredible young adults and three awesome grandchildren and is also a substitute teacher in the Tomah Area School District. Her favorite ministries are leading Bible studies, music and pro-life work. For fun, Melanie is a total fan of BBC dramas and Regency romance.