In the July issue of This Rock appeared an article titled "The Bible Supports Praying to the Saints." The author was Mitchell Pacwa, a Jesuit who teaches at Loyola University in Chicago. He is known best to readers of this magazine for his frequent appearances on Mother Angelica's Eternal Word Television Network (his specialty is Old Testament studies) and for his debate, aired a few years ago on the John Ankerberg Show, against the late Walter Martin.
The most sustained response we have received to Fr. Pacwa's article has been from John Lofton, a spirited defender of the Reformed position, a former columnist for The Washington Times newspaper, and a guest on many nationally-seen talk shows. We publish first Mr. Lofton's response, then a reply from Fr. Pacwa.
No Prayers to the Saints, Thank You
Fr. Mitchell Pacwa, S.J., undoubtedly has many talents, but, to put it charitably, the ability to accurately exegete Scripture does not, alas, appear to be among them.
In your July issue Fr. Pacwa asserts that the Church does allow "praying to the saints in order to ask for their intercession with the one true God." And he says that Protestants who say the Bible denies this are "incorrect."
Well, the Roman Catholic Church does, indeed, allow prayers to saints. But the Bible does not.
For openers, Fr. Pacwa never says, precisely, who the saints are. The Bible does, however. The Greek word used for "saint" in the New Testament is hagios, which means those set apart, those separate, those who are holy--in other words, all Christians, all those who are saved.
In fact, even John A. Hardon, S.J., in his Pocket Catholic Dictionary (Image Books, 1985) says, on page 390, that the word "saints" was "a name given in the New Testament to Christians generally (Col. 1:2) . . . ." This is correct. This is biblical.
To be sure, Fr. Hardon adds that the word "saint" was "early restricted to persons who were eminent for holiness," those "who distinguished themselves by heroic virtue during life and whom the Church honors as saints either by her ordinary universal teaching authority or by a solemn definition called canonization."
But these latter assertions are extrabiblical. No such restricted definition of "saint" is from the Bible. And Fr. Hardon cites no Scripture to support such an expanded definition--though this expanded definition is, again, indeed, the definition of the Roman Catholic Church.
In explaining who the saints are, Fr. Pacwa cites John 6:35, 48, 51, 53-56. But in neither the Protestant Bible nor a Roman Catholic Bible (for example, the St. Joseph Edition of the New American Bible, published by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine in 1970) is the word "saint" used in these passages.
Furthermore, Fr. Pacwa says that the book of Revelation (4:10, 5:8, 6:9-11) shows "the saints" doing a number of things. But this is not completely accurate. Revelation 4:10, in the already-mentioned St. Joseph Edition of the New American Bible, makes no mention at all of "saints." What is mentioned are "elders"--from the Greek word presbuteros, which means "aged person." But "saints" are not mentioned. And the words "saints" and "elder" are not synonymous.
In Revelation 5:8 (again, in the New American Bible) the word "elders" is mentioned twice, but the word "saint" is not. There is a mention of "the prayers of God's holy people" at the end of this verse. But the allusion is to the prayers "of" these people. No mention is made of any prayers to these people.
And it is here that Fr. Pacwa goes seriously awry.
Fr. Pacwa says that because the saints are alive in heaven, "we believe that we can go to them to intercede for us with God. . . . [T]hey will pray for us in heaven . . . [A] saint in heaven may intercede for other people because he still is a member of the Body of Christ . . . . The Bible encourages Christians to approach the saints in heaven, just as they approach God the Father and Jesus Christ the Lord."
But the Bible does no such thing.
To support his assertions, Fr. Pacwa quotes from Hebrews 12:22-24. But verse 24, again from the New American Bible, refers to Jesus as "the mediator of a new covenant." Note: Christ is called "the" mediator, not a mediator. And in his own words following the citation of Hebrews 12:22-24, Fr. Pacwa also refers to our Lord as "the mediator," not a mediator.
In fact, the only New Testament verses I can find regarding intercession are in Romans 8:26-27, in which "the Spirit" is said to make intercession for us; Romans 8:34, in which "Christ Jesus" is said to intercede for us; and Hebrews_7:25, in which "Jesus" is said to make intercession for "those who approach God through him" (again, all quotations here are from the New American Bible).
In conclusion, Fr. Pacwa, at the end of his article, seems to shift his ground. He asks the question: "Does the Bible say we should approach the saints with our prayers?" And he replies: "Yes, in two places," Revelation 5:8 and Revelation 8:3-4. But these passages allude only to, according to the Bible he quotes, "the prayers of the saints," "the prayers of all the saints," and "prayers of the saints."
Nothing is said in any of these passages about "approaching the saints with our prayers" or praying to the saints to intercede for us with God.
Fr. Pacwa says: "These texts give us a way to understand how the saints offer our prayers for us." He adds: "Because the saints are so close to the fire of God's love and because they stand immediately before him, they can set our prayers on fire with their love and release the powers of our prayers."
But this is adding to the Scripture, which Scripture forbids. This is Phariseeism plain and simple--that is, substituting the words of men for the Word of God.
It's not "the saints" versus "us." No way.
All of us who are Christians are saints. Thus, "our prayers," as Fr. Pacwa puts it, need no saints to get to God.
I repeat: Fr. Pacwa cites no specific Scripture which says that anyone intercedes for us other than "the Spirit" or "Christ Jesus" or "Jesus." If I've missed a specific Scripture, please cite it.
Sorry, but You're Wrong
Mr. Lofton, your letter has three difficulties: You do not understand my article in places, you limit your theology to scriptural words without thinking through their ramifications, and you do not have a sufficient Greek and biblical background. As a result you do not understand the saints.
You did not grasp my use of John 6:35, 48, 51, 53-56, where my point was that Christ bestows eternal life on all who eat his flesh and drink his blood. Therefore the redeemed in heaven are alive in Christ, not asleep or dead, as unbelievers would claim. My purpose did not require the text to mention the saints explicitly.
You limit the meaning of "saint" to a term for Christians in general. The Church does not deny this sense; we just do not confine it to Christians living on Earth. A saint who dies in the Lord does not cease to be a saint by entering God's immediate presence.
Further, if Paul asks saints on Earth for intercessory prayer, it is logical to ask the saints already in heaven to continue their intercession.
You object when I call the "elders" of Revelation 4:10, 5:8, 6:9-11 "saints." Why? They are redeemed human souls, since they are in heaven, and therefore holy, since heaven can admit nothing unclean. The elders are saints. Your letter needlessly forces the term "saint" to exclude other meanings, such as "elder" and "spirits of the righteous ones made perfect."
You claim that only Christ and the Holy Spirit make intercession, though 1 Timothy 2:1-2 commands everyone "to make petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings on behalf of all men." Christians on Earth--your "saints"--"pray" (synonymous with "intercede") for one another in 32 New Testament passages.
Christ and the Holy Spirit intercede for us, as the Catholic Church proclaims. The official prayers of the Mass (see a sacramentary, our official Mass book) address the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit at every Mass, including feasts of Mary and the saints. Never do we pray these official prayers in the name of Mary or any other saint.
Since we believe that death brings us to life with Christ, seeing him face to face and becoming like him (1 John 3:2), we still can pray and intercede for others. We are not deprived of that ministry. John saw a vision of the elders and the angels around God's throne offering incense--not ordinary incense, but the prayers of the saints, who, as you must admit, are the Christians on Earth.
You are right. Revelation 5:8 and 8:3-4 do not portray the earthly saints making their petition to the heavenly elders and angels, but that is implied by the text since the heavenly saints and angels have earthly prayers.
I am not adding to these passages, as you accuse, but drawing out their logical conclusions. Yes, Scripture forbids us to add to the text, but it does not prohibit us from thinking about the meaning of the text. Your limited interpretation, in fact, detracts from Scripture.
Since you do not know Greek, as the telephone conversation we had demonstrated, you are unaware that the manuscripts of Hebrews 12:24 do not have the definite article "the." They simply read "mediator."
What's more, accusing me of Pharisaism (not "Phariseeism") because I supposedly added to Scripture (which I did not) displays your misinformation about the Pharisees.
The Catholic Church does not force its members to have any particular devotion to the saints. It recommends such devotion on the basis of Scripture and prohibits anyone from condemning proper devotion. Scripture nowhere bans asking the saints in heaven for their prayers--so, please, do not add such a man-made ban.