Why Do We Pray to the Saints?

Reprinted from Oblates•July/August 2002•Volume 59•Number 4*


Most Catholics have been taught about the saints—and taught to pray to the saints—from childhood on. Whether it be to their personal patron saint, or the patron of their occupation, or their country, or the saint associated with their situation in life, many Catholics routinely offer prayers to the saints.


The practice of praying to the saints is anything but a recent innovation. In fact, it is one of the oldest continuous customs in Christianity.


Its roots can be traced as far back as the New Testament. In the Gospel of Luke, for example, Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31). The rich man, because of his indifference to the poor, has ended up in Hades, while Lazarus dwells in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to his father's house to warn his brothers to change their ways, so that they won't suffer the same fate as he. Implied in this story is the belief that the dead may be able to intercede on behalf of the living.


An even stronger foundation for the practice of venerating the saints is found in St. Paul's Letter to the Romans. Here Paul introduces the image of the Body of Christ, in which each member, whether living or dead, has a contribution to make based on his or her special gift (12:4-8). The image of the body of Christ, which includes the faithful both living and dead, implies that the saints who have passed on to the next life can come to the aid of the living.


The practice of praying to the saints seems to have remained common in the early centuries of the Church. The followers of St. Polycarp, a bishop who suffered martyrdom around the year 155 AD, expressed their desire to observe the anniversary of his death. Prayer to the saints was fostered by the growth of devotion to the relics of the martyrs. A theologian named Origen (185-254) taught that the prayers of the saints are helpful to the living, as long as the living follow in the footsteps of those who have preceded them in death. And there is evidence from St. Cyprian, a third-century bishop, of a growing belief that the dead could intercede with God on behalf of the living.


Devotion to the saints continued to spread rapidly in the fourth century, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386), for example, distinguished the saints remembered in the Eucharistic Sacrifice from the ordinary dead, who would still need the benefits of the Eucharist.


A problem arose at this time when some questioned whether devotion to the saints constituted idol worship. This charge was put to rest by Christian theologians who distinguished between the worship of God, and the honor due to the saints. The saints, they believed, were to be understood always as secondary to God, who alone is worthy of worship.


In the early Middle Ages devotion to the saints was greatly extended through the conversion of the so-called "barbarian" tribes of Europe. In particular, the Irish monks spread this practice—first to England, and then to the continent.


Why do we—and why should we—pray to the saints now? First, we believe that their search for holiness—for oneness with God—in their earthly life has brought the saints close to God now, in death. Second, we believe that the humanness of the saints—their great virtue, and their sinfulness—makes them accessible to us, with our goodness as well as our faults and failings, and makes them role models for us to emulate. And third, Catholics continue to believe in the power of intercessory prayer—that the saints can, and will, present our needs to God on our behalf.


In the end, all prayer, and all worship, are directed to God. Still, the saints are advocates for us in the great communion of the living and dead that makes up the universal Body of Christ.


*Oblates© magazine is a publication of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate through the
Missionary Association of Mary Immaculate, Belleville, IL

National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows
Belleville IL 62223-1160


Miraculous Invocation to St. Thérèse

O glorious Saint Thérèse, whom Almighty God has raised up to aid and counsel mankind, I implore your Miraculous Intercession. So powerful are you in obtaining every need of body and soul our Holy Mother Church proclaims you a "Prodigy of Miracles ... the Greatest Saint of Modern Times." Fervently I now beseech you to answer my petition (mention here) and to carry out your promise of spending Heaven doing good upon earth, of letting fall from Heaven a Shower of Roses. Henceforth, Dear Little Flower, I will fulfill your plea "to be made known everywhere" and I will never cease to lead others to Jesus through you. Amen

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