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Friends in High Places

Protestants usually voice four main objections about praying to saints:

  • If we are supposed to pray to saints, why does Jesus command us to pray to the Father in Matthew 6:9? The Bible says we are to pray to God. Catholics make “gods” out of the saints by praying to them instead of God.
  • Deuteronomy 18:10-11 and similar verses of Scripture condemn necromancy. If necromancy means “communicating with the dead,” it would seem to condemn praying to saints.
  • First Timothy 2:5 clearly states “there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ.” And Hebrews 7:24-25 says, “But [Christ] holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues for ever. Consequently, he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” If Christ is our unique mediator/intercessor, then why would any Christian seek the intercession of saints? Why would I go to a saint, even if I could, when I can go straight to Christ?
  • It is impossible for us to pray to saints anyway because they would have to be God in order to be able to hear and answer multiple prayers at the same time!

Worship or Entreaty?

When Catholics say they pray to saints, they are talking about something essentially different from praying to God. We use the same word for both, but each kind of prayer is very different in nature. Prayer to God includes the worship that is owed him alone. Prayer to saints includes the honor that is their due, but never worship. In that sense, Catholics can agree with Protestants that prayer to God is unique. The problem here is, at least in part, semantics.

Any good dictionary will tell you prayer can simply mean a petition or entreaty from one person to another. It does not necessarily mean there is worship involved. Earlier forms of English presented less difficulty with the word. One could say to another, “Pray tell…” or, “I pray thee, my Lord…” Ironically, we see several examples of this usage in the King James Bible—a Bible many Fundamentalists hold in especially high regard. For example, when Bathsheba makes a request of King Solomon in 1 Kings 2:20, she says: “I pray thee, say me not nay.” There is no question here of whether Bathsheba was worshipping her son! She was not. Nor are Catholics when we pray to saints.

What Is Necromancy?

Without any doubt Scripture condemns “necromancy.” Consider Deuteronomy 18:10-12:

There shall not be found among you any one who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, any one who practices divination, a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord (emphasis added).

The problem arises with the attempt to apply the term necromancy indiscriminately to mean all manner of communication with those who have died. This is an improper usage of the term. Dictionaries define necromancy as “conjuring up spirits” or “communication with the spirits of the dead in order to foretell the future, black magic or sorcery.” When Catholics pray to saints, we do not “conjure up” spirits or tell fortunes. In fact, the Catholic Church is in complete agreement with the Bible when it condemns consulting “mediums” and “wizards.”

Protestants who claim that God prohibits communicating with the dead in any sense run into a serious problem. Jesus would clearly be guilty in Luke 9:29-31:

And as [Jesus] was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white. And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.

According to Deuteronomy 34:5, Moses was a dead guy! And yet Jesus was communicating with him and Elijah about the most important event in human history—the Redemption. There is no contradiction here as long as one makes the distinction that is very clear in Scripture: there is an essential difference between going to “mediums” or “wizards” to conjure up the spirits of the dead and communicating—as Jesus did—with those we either hope (if they have not been canonized) or believe (if they have been canonized) died in friendship with God.

I should note here that many Evangelicals will say it is not wrong to communicate with the dead in any context. It would only be wrong if that contact originates from the one who is living on earth. In other words, the communication would have to be initiated by either God or by the angel or saint at God’s direction.

This argument fails for the simple reason that Jesus was the one who initiated the communication with Moses and Elijah in Luke 9. Some may say, “Well, he is God, so he can do that.” Yes, he is. But he is also fully man and we are called to imitate him.

The New Testament presents other examples of believers on earth who initiate communication with saints and angels in heaven. First, we have Hebrews 11-12. Some refer to chapter 11 as “the hall of faith” wherein the lives of the Old Testament saints are recounted. As chapter 12 begins, the inspired author encourages a persecuted church to consider that they are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” and that they must “run the race” of faith set before them. Then, beginning in verse 18, he encourages them by recalling the lofty nature of their covenant—the New Covenant—which is far superior to the Old:

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire … darkness … gloom … and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers entreat that no further messages be spoken to them…
But you have come to… the city of the living God… and to innumerable angels… and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven… and to… God… and to the spirits of just men made perfect… and to Jesus…

Notice, in the Old Covenant the People of God approached God alone and with trepidation. But in the New Covenant, when we approach God either in private prayer or liturgically, we have a radical change for the better. “But you have come to … and to … and to … and to.” In the same way we “come to” God and Jesus we also “come to” the angels, and to “the spirits of just men made perfect.” Those are the saints in heaven. In the fellowship of the saints, we have the aid and encouragement of the whole family of God. And we approach them all by way of prayer!

The book of Revelation gives us an even better description of this communication between heaven and earth. Revelation 5:8-14 reads:

The twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints … the elders fell down and worshipped.

These “elders” are offering the prayers from believers living on earth symbolized by incense filtering upward from the earth to heaven. Obviously, these prayers are initiated by the living on earth. Is this necromancy? Absolutely not! This is New Covenant Christianity.

What Part of One Doesn’t Make Sense?

The Catholic Church teaches Jesus Christ is our one mediator/intercessor. He is the only mediator, strictly speaking, because he is the only person in the universe who can mediate between the two parties needing to be reconciled. He is God, thus he has the infinite power required to appease God. He is man, thus he can make fitting atonement for the sin of man. Though this mediation is incommunicable in a strict sense, it does not preclude secondary mediators in Christ by way of participation.

The context of 1 Timothy 2 demonstrates this to be true. Just before St. Paul declared Christ to be our one, unique mediator/intercessor, he commanded all Christians to be intercessors (or mediators) in verses 1-2.

Further, the very definition of a priest is “a mediator between God and men.” All Christians are priests! All are not ministerial priests, but all Christians are priests nonetheless. First Peter 2:5,9 declares:

And like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

It follows then, that all Christians are mediators in a participatory sense in what Christ alone is by nature and absolutely.

Why would I go to the saints when I can go straight to God? The answer is not an either/or proposition. It’s both/and! One could say just as well: Why would I ask my brother in Christ to intercede for me when I can go to Christ, the perfect intercessor? The Catholic answer is: because God commands us to pray for one another. Jesus said “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). God, in his providential plan, has chosen to use unworthy sinners like you and me to minister his grace and healing to one another.

Are Catholics God-Makers?

This final question claims Catholics make “gods” out of the saints by praying to them. This sounds like a repeat of the first question, but it’s not. The first question considered giving what is perceived as divine honor to the saints. This objection says Catholics attribute infinite—and therefore divine—power to the saints: “It would be impossible for any saint to hear the prayers of thousands or even millions of people at the same time and respond. Even more, 2 Chronicles 6:30 tells us ‘[God] alone knowest the hearts of the children of men.’ So how could saints hear the silent prayers of millions at the same time?”

The objector claims it would require infinite power to be able to accomplish what Catholics claim the saints can accomplish. Only God is infinite. Therefore, it is irrational—and sinful—to pray to saints.

The simplest Catholic response would be to challenge our Protestant friends to believe what God says in Scripture. Remember Revelation 5:8?

And when [Christ, the lamb] had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints…

These twenty-four elders are human beings in heaven and they are depicted as “each one [having] vials of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” Each one of them was responding to multiple prayers from multiple people at the same time. These saints in heaven somehow have the power to do what to some may seem impossible. We would do well to recall the words of the Archangel Gabriel at this juncture: “With God all things are possible” (cf. Luke 1:37). If we have faith, we will have no problem believing God’s word over our own feeble and fallible intellects.

Let’s Get Metaphysical

So far, so good, but we still need to square all of these texts, as well as give some reasons for the faith we see depicted Revelation 5. Three basic areas of misunderstanding need to be cleared up.

First, there’s the problem with saints hearing multiple prayers at the same time. Quite simply, time is not an issue to the saints because they are outside of time. They don’t need any time to respond. Second, we need to ask the question: Would it require infinite power to hear the prayers of, let’s say, one billion people? The answer is yes and no. On one level we can say one billion is a finite number, so by nature the task would not require infinite power. However, it is necessary for one to be omniscient if we are talking about the one whose power is responsible for the phenomenon. In other words, omniscience would be required for God to accomplish this because he is the first cause. However, omniscience and omnipotence are not required of those to whom God grants limited power with his divine assistance to be able to accomplish that which is beyond their natural abilities.

St. Thomas Aquinas answers this question succinctly when he says the ability to perform actions that transcend nature comes from a “created light of glory received into [the] created intellect” (cf. Summa Theologiae I:12:7). It would require infinite power to “create the light” or the grace given to empower man to act beyond nature. Only God can do that. But it does not require infinite power to passively receive that light. As long as what is received is not infinite by nature or does not require infinite power to comprehend, it would not be beyond man’s ability to receive. Therefore, this “created light,” given by God to empower men to be able hear a finite number of prayers, is reasonable as well as biblical.

A Good Ol’ Heart to Heart

But what about the fact that “only God knowest the hearts of the children of men” (2 Chr. 6:30)? In order to answer prayers “from the hearts of men,” wouldn’t Mary and the saints have to be able to “know the hearts of the children of men?” It is true that only God knows the hearts of men. But it is also true that God can reveal this knowledge to his servants.

Scripture gives us multiple examples of this phenomenon. Daniel 2 is perhaps the clearest. As the story goes, King Nebuchadnezzar had a troubling dream. He called for “the sorcerers” and “wise men” of his kingdom so they might interpret the dream for him. But there was one catch. He wanted them to tell him the dream first, and then they could give him the interpretation. None of them could. Nebuchadnezzar was furious. He immediately ordered the deaths of all “the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers,” and “wise men” of the kingdom. That would include Daniel and his companions—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—as well.

Daniel told his three companions to pray to God for deliverance, resulting in God revealing to Daniel both the King’s dream and its interpretation. Daniel certainly knew the heart of the King. Daniel could “know the heart of a man” through the power of God; the abilities of the saints and angels in heaven far surpasses Daniel’s. For them to hear the silent prayers of the faithful on earth is a piece of cake.

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