“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 endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder 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
“Indeed, the Saints have ever been, are, and ever will be the greatest benefactors of society, and perfect models for every class and profession, for every state and condition of life, from the simple and uncultured peasant to the master of sciences and letters, from the humble artisan to the commander of armies, from the father of a family to the ruler of peoples and nations, from simple maidens and matrons of the domestic hearth to queens and empresses.”
– Pope Pius XI (1922 – 1939), Divinus Illius Magistri, par. 99.
Catholic Church’s Theology of Saints:
The Catholic Church teaches us that the Church exists in three forms: the Church Triumphant, the Church Suffering (aka Church Expectant), and the Church Militant. The Church Triumphant are individuals who through white martyrdom (“for those such as desert hermits who aspired to the condition of martyrdom through strict asceticism.” – Jerome), red martyrdom (someone who is tortured and/or killed for the faith), or through the process of canonization (“The congregation prepares each year everything necessary for the pope to be able to set forth new examples of holiness. After approving results on miracles, martyrdom and heroic virtues of various Servants of God, the Holy Father proceeds to a series of canonizations and beatifications.” – Congregation for the Causes of Saints) are known to us as Saints. The Church Suffering are the individuals who are in Purgatory, and consist of individuals being purified before seeing God face to face. The Church Militant are those individuals who are on earth. The Catechism reads, “We believe in the communion of all the faithful of Christ, those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are being purified, and the blessed in heaven, all together forming one Church; and we believe that in this communion, the merciful love of God and his Saints is always attentive to our prayers.” (Paragraph 962, Catechism of the Catholic Church).
Who are the Saints, and are we considered Saints now? The Saints are innumerable named and unnamed individuals throughout history, who have accomplished both great and small feats for the Lord. Some of them are St. Francis of Assisi, St. Francis de Sales, St. Stephen (Protomartyr), St. Therese of Lisieux, Saint Theresa (Mother Theresa), and many more. These individuals lived their lives in complete dedication to the Lord, and we should look to them for encouragement and example, and prayer. Therefore, no, you and I are not considered Saints because we are still in process.
I have always found that there is the same difference between the saints and me as there is between a mountain whose summit is lost in the clouds and a humble grain of sand trodden underfoot by passersby. Instead of being discouraged, I told myself: God would not make me wish for something impossible and so, in spite of my littleness, I can aim at being a saint. It is impossible for me to grow bigger, so I put up with myself as I am, with all my countless faults. But I will look for some means of going to heaven by a little way which is very short and very straight, a little way that is quite new…
– St. Therese of Lisieux
There are many Saints who I am encouraged by, but I’d like to start with the Libyan martyrs known as the 21 Coptic Martyrs of Libya. Typically, we think of Saints as people who lived a long time ago, but these Saints that I’m thinking of were martyred for the Faith on February 12, 2015. The story is that ISIS captured twenty Libyan workers and one Ghanaian companion, and marched them to the southern Mediterranean coast. As the men are on their knees, it can be seen that each man is praying and stating their love for Jesus, and each man is told to deny Jesus or be decapitated. One by one each man is asked, and each man is subsequently beheaded. [Side Note: The Catholic Church is very intentional about keeping records of anyone (Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant) who is martyred for the Christian Faith.] The final person to be questioned is the Matthew Ayariga, the Ghanan man, and after he is asked, he can be seen looking at the beheaded men to his left and right, and he responds with, “Their God is my God.” You see, it was later found out, after investigative work by the Catholic Church, that this man had never pronounced faith in Christ. Instead of denying a deity whom he had never known and saving his life, he was so compelled, by the act of love and devotion from these other men, that he, too, chose to die. Our lives bear witness to the salvific love of Christ, but our death, even in the face of martyrdom, can save a soul.
“Even Unto Death” is a beautiful song written by Audrey Assad about these martyrs.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Having examples of people living out the faith is important, and for some, it may be the only example that they have. Meaning, some of us don’t have holy people in our lives to show us what it is to live a life of devotion and love to our Lord, so being able to look up to the Saints for that example can be life-changing. Additionally, sometimes life can be difficult and challenging circumstances may overwhelm us, so having holy examples of people who faced similar challenges may help us to succeed in our trial.
We should pray to the Saints, and ask for their intercession in our lives. WAIT! If you had a visceral reaction against that statement, you’re probably one of my Protestant brothers or sisters, so give me a moment to build my case. I discussed this concept a little in my blog The Virgin Mary: A Catholic Perspective, but I will be expounding upon it here.
First, let’s define our terms. The word “pray” has various meanings. The dictionary defines it as, “entreat, implore — often used as a function word in introducing a question, request, or plea (i.e. “pray be careful“); to make a request in a humble manner; to address God or a god with adoration, confession, supplication, or thanksgiving.” For Protestants, the word “pray” has a very singular adorative (worshipful) meaning, but for Catholics, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the rest of the world, there are multiple meanings. When a Catholic says that we “pray” to the Saints, we mean that we ask for them to intercede for us. Much like when you ask your friends or family to pray for you. Are you worshipping them? No, of course not! You’re asking for their assistance, and you’re uniting with the mystical body of Christ. It’s a humble request made to a Saint who has passed through this life well and also happens to literally be in the presence of God.
Next, let’s build upon this definition, and include some soteriology (theology of salvation) and eschatology (theology of the end times). What do we know about people who lived holy lives? Catholic theology, in accordance with Paul’s teaching, says that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants agree with this statement theologically, but there is a difference in praxis. When I was a Protestants, I believed that when we get to heaven, we wouldn’t be concerned with what is happening on earth, but does that make sense? God is deeply concerned with what is happening, and it grieves Him… would we also not be concerned? Therefore, while on earth, we can ask the Saints to intercede for us, and to bring our prayers and petitions to God. Meaning, we have the option of asking Christians, who passed through this life well, that are literally standing in the presence, face to face, with the Living God, to pray for us. Now, you may say, “Why wouldn’t I just bring my prayers to God directly?” YES! You should absolutely do that! God is not honored if we were to enter His throne room and address His servants before Him, and the servants recognize that it is not their place to be addressed before God is addressed. Always go to God first!
“When I die, I will send down a shower of roses from the heavens, I will spend my heaven by doing good on earth.”
– St. Therese of Lisieux
- “If the Saints are created beings, how can they hear and know the intercessions made to them?”
Yes, the Saints are created beings who have a perfected Imago Dei (Image of God), either through living a purgative life or going through the purgative process and are therefore limited/finite. As created beings made in the Imago Dei, we share certain qualities with God (intelligence, logic, emotion, consciousness, morality, etc.), but there are many things that we do not possess (omniscience (all-knowing), omnipotence (all-powerful), omnipresence (all-present/present everywhere), aseity (exists in and of Himself without dependence upon anything for His being), etc.). As I stated above, it is imperative to address God and make your desires known to Him first. Just as He invites you and I (Church Militant) to partner in His redemptive plan, the Saints (Church Triumphant) are intimately involved, too. Think about it, if you and I exist to further the Kingdom of God, wouldn’t be involved, too? Does God only invite us to participate as broken beings, and not ask us to participate once we are perfected? Therefore, as the Church Militant unites itself to the Church Triumphant, and vice-versa, and God makes known our intentions and prayers to the Saints. Think about those moments when your actions are an answer to someone’s prayer, or vice-versa, and the person’s whose prayer is being answered says, “How did he/she know that I was praying about this?” This is what it means to be united. We are the Church, and we exist to further the Kingdom of God.
Here are some verses that encourage us to pray for others: 1 Timothy 2:1-3, Job 42:10, Matthew 5:44, 1 Thessalonians 5:25.
2. “Wouldn’t going to the Saints detract from God, and give glory to beings other than Him?”
No. Our purpose in life is to love God, glorify Him, and make Him known. This is the same purpose that the Saints. As an example, are your acts of kindness getting in the way of God’s glory? Of course not… unless your intention is to bring yourself glory. Our motives can detract from God, and cause others to honor us instead of God. Therefore, to accuse the Saints of detracting from God is to call into question God’s ability to sanctify, purify, and perfect His Saints, and by extension, call into question the effectiveness of the cross. As perfected beings, it is impossible to have sinful intentions, so if a Saint were to act sinfully, then they would not be a Saint… they would be in hell.
Here’s an example:
I have a friend who went to the doctor because her eyesight was getting worse, and it was found out that she had a condition that was going to make her blind. After hearing this, I spent a lot of time interceding for her eyesight and begging God to restore her eyes, but I also knew that St. Lucy, the patron Saint for eyes, would intercede for her, too. So, after spending time in prayer with our Lord, I also asked St. Lucy if she would be willing to pray for my friend, too. As far as I know, my friend’s eyes have not gotten any worse, and she is not expected to go blind.
St. Lucy is one of the oldest canonized Saints and is depicted holding a platter of her own eyes. Tradition tells us that she was being persecuted for her faith in Christ, so when presented with the option of worshiping the emperor’s idol or being tortured, she chose death. Paschasius, the Governor of Syracuse, sentenced her to be defiled in a brothel. Tradition tells us that when the guards came to take her away, they were unable to move her. As a result, bundles of wood were then heaped about her and set on fire, but they would not burn. Finally, she met her death by the sword. During her torture, she had her eyes gouged out, but after her death, it was found that her eyes were miraculously regenerated.
Was it wrong for me to pray to God, and ask a Saint to intercede with me? If you still think so, then let me ask you to consider this: why do you ask your friends for prayer? You may say, “yes, but my friend is alive,” but then my follow up question is, is not our God the God of the living (Mark 12:27), and do you truly believe in Him?
3. “There’s only one mediator between God and Man.”
Amen! There is only one mediator, and that is Christ Jesus. The Saints are not mediators, but rather, they are intercessors. The theological definition of mediation is typically understood as the direct mediation of salvation, which is not the role of created beings, and that that task can only be accomplished by an infinitely efficacious act and by an infinite being. Therefore, let us use the word “intercessor,” which is defined as, “someone who intervenes on behalf of another, especially by prayer.” God, in His desire for unity among His people (John 17), mediates our relationship with the Saints, and vice-versa, and invites them into our lives so that they might intercede for us.
[If you have any additional questions or comments, please ask them in the comment section, and I would love to dialogue with you!]
Ubi Caritas Est Vera, Deus Ibi Est
(Where true charity is, God is there.)
Chad’s Response: An Orthodox View of Saints – Our Inspiration & Intercessors
Tony’s Response: Coming Soon