One fairly regular question the apologists receive at Catholic Answers is "Who is the patron saint of [insert need or desire]?" While the answer to many such questions can be found at sites like the Patron Saints Index, more than a few are not readily answerable. I remember one person who wanted to know the patron saint of skateboarders. Not exactly a patronage that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints is going to fill anytime soon.
We end up improvising, telling people that we don't know of an official patron but that such-and-so saint might be helpful because of something similar in his life. I got in trouble for this once. Someone asked for a patron for diabetics. I couldn't find one through my usual sources, so I suggested St. Maximilian Kolbe, who was put to death by lethal injection. One reader was outraged:
Comparing the lethal injection used to murder St. Maximillian Kolbe
with the life-saving injections that some
diabetics use is stunning. Rather, diabetics should pray to St. Paulina do Coracao Agonizante de Jesus
who was a diabetic and cared for sick sisters in her order. She died in 1942 at Priranga, Brazil, of complications from diabetes and was canonized in 2002 by Pope John Paul II in Rome.
In response, I noted that St. Paulina certainly was a fine intercessor for diabetics, although I had not previously known of her. I then said:
Suggest[ing] that Catholics invoke St. Maximilian Kolbe's intercession for diabetics because he was killed by lethal injection is no more "stunning" a development in Catholic piety than St. Lawrence of Rome
's intercession for cooks (he was martyred over an open grill) or St. Stephen
's intercession for headache sufferers (he was stoned to death). Catholic piety seems to delight in reveling in the triumph over death through death by the Church Triumphant (cf. 1 Cor. 15:54-55
Lay advocacy for saints to be assigned to particular patronages can at times be problematic, especially when done publicly. But it must also be remembered that one reason patronages are assigned is because laypeople are already praying to a saint for a particular need. It is also a protection against superstition.
All too often many Catholics look for an "official" patron saint for their intention because they want to "ensure" they'll be granted their request. Such a utilitarian use of the saints' intercession treads very close to the definition of superstition by the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition (CCC 2111).
By contrast, asking a saint for intercession because you know something about the saint's life that you believe would draw the saint's sympathy demonstrates love. Here are a few examples:
- A friend of mine prays to St. Matthew the Apostle for financial concerns. She figures that his renunciation of his life as a tax collector (Matt. 9:9–13) would mean that he would be delighted to give away money rather than collect it. And she's been right. Many times after praying to St. Matthew, she seems to "find" money she never knew she had. In return for St. Matthew's generosity, this friend donates half of whatever she finds to charity.
- Servant of God Fr. Emil J. Kapaun was an army chaplain during the Korean War. After capture by Chinese Communists and at the risk to his own life, he took care of fellow prisoners in a North Korean POW camp. As part of his efforts, he often needed to steal food for his men. Survivors recalled that "Father Kapaun used to pray for the intercession of St. Dismas, the 'Good Thief,' who died with Christ, for success; then he would sneak out and raid the Korean corn cribs to get extra corn and other food for the men."
- Iconic New York Mayor Ed Koch was not Catholic, but was great friends with Catholic leaders such as Cardinal John O'Connor and Bl. Teresa of Calcutta. He once told the story of Mother Teresa visiting him after he had suffered a stroke. When he asked Mother Teresa if there was anything he could offer to her and her sisters, she refused money but asked for two parking permits for the Missionaries of Charity's New York City hospice for AIDS victims. Mayor Koch noted that the permits would be harder to obtain than money, but managed to secure her the permits. Ever since reading that story, I pray to Mother Teresa for parking spaces and the spaces seem to open up.
It is understandable that when we have a need, and want a saint's prayers, that we should try to find out if the Church has designated a patron we could turn to. But we should never forget that the saints are not heavenly bellhops who respond to summons, but friends in the heavenly court who we should get to know. If we do that, then when we turn to them in prayer, we are more likely to be seeking a favor from a friend rather than a sign or wonder from someone whose mighty deeds we've heard might be enlisted for our cause (cf. Luke 23:8–9