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How Do We Know the Saints Intercede for Us?

According to Aquinas, those who intercede for others on earth certainly continue to do so in heaven

There’s no lack of gems to mine in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. And his teaching on the intercession of the saints is among the brightest of these.

In the Supplement to his Summa Theologiae, Aquinas argues that the saints are aware of their role as intercessors and of the requests made of them. He begins with the idea that seeing the divine essence gives knowledge of what pertains to self:

Each of the blessed must needs see in the Divine essence as many other things as the perfection of his happiness requires. For the perfection of a man’s happiness requires him to have whatever he will, and to will nothing amiss: and each one wills with a right will, to know what concerns himself. Hence since no rectitude is lacking to the saints, they wish to know what concerns themselves, and consequently it follows that they know it in the Word (ST Suppl. 72:1).

For Aquinas, the blessed contemplate God in his eternal perfection, seeing in him the matters and concerns of God’s plan for them. The next step of his argument is to show that they cooperate with God in assisting the needy in their salvation:

Now it pertains to their glory that they assist the needy for their salvation: for thus they become God’s co-operators, ‘than which nothing is more Godlike,’ as Dionysius declares (Coel. Hier. iii).

Aquinas doesn’t provide a defense of this claim, but the idea that Christians have a role of cooperating with God in assisting others to attain their salvation is clearly biblical. Consider, for example, some of Paul’s statements:

  • 1 Corinthians 9:22: “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save
  • 1 Timothy 4:16: “Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
  • 1 Corinthians 7:10: “Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife?”

Cooperating with God in assisting others to attain their salvation is clearly part of what it means to be a Christian. And one way this assistance is carried out, which is pertinent to the topic at hand, is through intercessory prayer. Paul writes, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Rom. 10:1). For Paul, this is one way that Christians “contribute to the needs of the saints [fellow Christians]” (Rom. 12:12-13).

If “contributing to the needs of the saints” by way of assisting them to attain salvation through intercessory prayer is essential to what it means to be a Christian on earth, then surely it would be part of one’s Christian identity in heaven. Why would such assistance through intercessory prayer cease to be part of the Christian life in a state of existence where the Christian life is perfected?

Remember, the blessed in heaven are those whom God “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29), and they are perfectly so. To be perfectly conformed to Christ is to be perfected in what it means to be a Christian. Since being a Christian involves cooperating with God to assist others in attaining their salvation, it follows that it belongs to those in heaven who are perfectly conformed to Christ to be cooperators with God to give such assistance.

Moreover, cooperating with God to help others attain salvation through intercessory prayer is a way by which Christians conform themselves to the image of the Son, since the Son, “for all time [saves] those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25). Conformity to Christ involves doing what Christ does.

The blessed in heaven are perfectly conformed to Christ. Therefore, it still belongs to the blessed in heaven to assist others to attain salvation through intercessory prayer. If they didn’t have such a role, then their conformity to the image of Christ would be less perfect in heaven than what it was on earth. But that’s absurd!

The last piece of the puzzle for Aquinas is that the blessed must be aware of the invocations made of them to assist in salvation:

Wherefore it is evident that the saints are cognizant of such things as are required for this purpose; and so it is manifest that they know in the Word the vows, devotions, and prayers of those who have recourse to their assistance (ST Suppl. 72:1).

For St. Thomas, it doesn’t make sense for the saints in heaven to have the role of an intercessor without being able to know the requests made of them.

So far, with Aquinas’s help, we have very strong reasons to believe that the saints in heaven have the role of an intercessor and that they would know whatever requests are made of them. But how does this imply the idea that the saints do in fact intercede for us?

Well, consider a scenario in which the saints in heaven didn’t intercede for us. On such a scenario, they would be unfulfilled Christians, since interceding for others to attain salvation is essential what it means to be a Christian. But an unfulfilled Christian is incompatible with the perfect happiness of heaven. Therefore, the saints in heaven must in fact intercede for us.

The Angelic Doctor may be best known for his philosophical insights concerning God’s existence and nature, the Trinity, and all things pertaining to Christ. But his insights concerning the lower mysteries in the hierarchy of truths are just as profound, and the intercession of the saints is no exception. St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!

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