Intercessory Prayer to the Saints
In my five or so years attending Protestant churches I came across a lot of confusion about what Catholics thought, believed, and did. Part of what I’d like to achieve in my writing is hope to provide some context for these things Catholics do. What this is not is an attempt to convince anyone that were right or they’re wrong but more as an effort to show the context of the practice and development of it.
One of the clearest practical dividing lines between my experience in Protestant devotion and spiritual formation versus returning to my Catholic devotions was around intercessory prayer to the faithfully departed.
Let’s start with what it is not. Catholics don’t pray to Mary or other saints the way we all pray to God. We’re not worshiping them or asking for them to do anything super natural apart from “pray for us sinners now and the hour of our death” (Hail Mary Prayer)
What fundamentally Catholics are doing is asking those who have preceded us in the faith and have died but are still part of the body of Christ to pray for us to the Lord.
We all agree that it’s a good thing to ask still living Christians to pray for us about whatever problems we might have. This happens constantly regardless of whether one is Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox. “Pray for me”, “I’ll pray for you”, “keep me in your prayers” etc are phrases heard constantly and is something the Church Fathers and scripture encourages.
So the question isn’t fundamentally about whether people should pray for the spiritual benefit of others but rather do those people need to be part of the church militant (just a fancy term for the body believers still with a pulse) or can they be part of church triumphant (meaning those who have died in the faith).
The difference for Catholics is that we believe the saints can and do pray and intercede for us to God.
Why do Catholics believe this?
First is the Catholic view of the book of Revelation. While in much of American evangelicalism Revelation is seen fundamentally as a work about the end of times. Catholics while still holding that it reveals something about the end times view it more of a liturgical book that reveals how we are to properly worship God.
So what do we find in Revelation?
The major element that drives the Catholic belief from scripture is the presences of the Saints around the altar worshiping God but also
After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches* in their hands.
They cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation comes from* our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb.”
But even more directly earlier in Revelation the Elders offer up the prayers for the Saints as incense.
When he took it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each of the elders held a harp and gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the holy ones.
So we have the leaders of the Heavenly host offering the prayers of the Saints to God, found in scripture. This is at its heart the rationale for intercessory prayer from a scriptural standpoint.
Another driver for this belief is the practices of the early church as we have them passed on from the Fathers.
Clement of Alexandria
“In this way is he [the true Christian] always pure for prayer. He also prays in the society of angels, as being already of angelic rank, and he is never out of their holy keeping; and though he pray alone, he has the choir of the saints standing with him [in prayer]” (Miscellanies 7:12 [A.D. 208]).
“But not the high priest [Christ] alone prays for those who pray sincerely, but also the angels . . . as also the souls of the saints who have already fallen asleep” (Prayer 11 [A.D. 233]).
Cyril of Jerusalem
“Then [during the Eucharistic prayer] we make mention also of those who have already fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition . . . “
But it’s not just what the Church Fathers wrote, as we also have funeral inscriptions from early Christians that point to this being an early belief of the Church as well.
“Atticus, sleep in peace, secure in your safety, and pray anxiously for our sins” (funerary inscription near St. Sabina’s in Rome [A.D. 300]).
“Pray for your parents, Matronata Matrona. She lived one year, fifty-two days” (ibid.).
“Mother of God, [listen to] my petitions; do not disregard us in adversity, but rescue us from danger” (Rylands Papyrus 3 [A.D. 350]).
So while many well meaning people can disagree with the Catholic reading of scripture, or disagree with the Church fathers, it is clear that the practice of asking the Saints to pray for us was not some medieval creation.
So why the difference in belief? First I suspect that the corrupt practices of church members concerning indulgences tainted the rich tradition of intercessory prayer for many early Protestants. Anything that got near to the specific practice was damaged goods and too ‘Catholic’ for the Luther and Calvin types.
However, I suspect the heart of this disagreement falls more in the difference between Protestantisms very clean sense of salvation and the much more complicated Catholic and Orthodox doctrines.
There’s not time here to cover that topic which would be truly a magnum opus but I think it’s worth flagging that I suspect much of the fight against intercessory prayer is more fundamentally about the specific type of intercessory prayer for the dead that’s practiced both by Catholics and Orthodox. Prayers for the dead undermine the very legal based understanding of salvation popular in many Protestant circles.
In the enlightenment infused theology of Protestant salvation, it is a largely if not entirely individualistic view. So to imply that someone praying for a dead loved one could have some effect implies that salvation and sanctification are either not entirely individualistic or salvation and sanctification aren’t the same thing.
[NOTE: Catholics view salvation and sanctification as not one in the same. Thus the need for some type of purgation even for those saved, in order to achieve sanctification. This is another really long topic but the Catechism does a good job. Link here.]
So in short to understand why Catholics invoke the saints in prayer is that we believe that they are near to God in heaven and are able to intercede with him for us. While one can certainly disagree with the Catholic reading of scripture and the Fathers, it was the historic position of the ancient church leading up to and until the Reformation. So the next time you hear a Catholic reciting the Hail Mary, it’s fair albeit somewhat simplistic to say it’s similar to asking your friend to pray for you over some specific challenge you have.
Note: I’m not a professional theologian so I may by accident state things that are in conflict with the stated position of the Catholic Church. In such cases the error is entirely mine and I submit to their magisterial teaching authority.