Do the Saints Pray for Us? A Response to Perry Sukstorf and Marcia FleischmanFeb 15th, 2014 | By David Anders | Category: Blog Posts
Last week (February 14, 2014), the McClatchy-Tribune News Service published a syndicated column (Voices of Faith) that was critical of Catholics and their devotion to the saints. I first discovered it in my own local Birmingham News. The piece was written by Rev. Perry Sukstorf and Rev. Marcia Fleischman. The newspaper included no Catholic rebuttal. As a convert to Catholicism, I thought the article really missed the point of devotion to the saints. I would now like to explain why.
The authors make two substantive claims. First, Sukstorf and Fleischman argue that Catholic practice obscures the meaning of salvation. Sukstorf states that Catholic belief is “no longer about one’s faith in Christ, but about outward works.” Fleischman contends, “We are all saints. No one is supposed to be elevated over any other.” These writers assume the Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith alone. They think Catholics lay too much stress on the moral life. But sainthood, they claim, is not about living an exemplary life; it’s about faith in Christ.
Second, these writers assert that prayer to the saints is unnecessary. “Each person can present all concerns . . . to God directly, Fleischman writes, “no priest or saint [is] needed.” She complains, “people . . . worship another person’s mystical experience instead of developing their own.”
Let’s begin with the first claim. Is it true that we are accepted by God on the basis of faith alone? That the quality of our moral lives has no bearing on our acceptance with God? Is it true that God makes no distinctions based on our works? That we are all equal? The Bible says otherwise.
Jesus himself distinguishes (on the basis of works) those “least in the kingdom of heaven” from those “greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:19) Similarly, Christ promised heaven to those who give alms and hell to those who are uncharitable. (Matthew 25:41-43) St. Paul also teaches judgment according to works: “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” (Romans 2:13) And finally St. James: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24)
Rev. Sukstorf argues that Catholics confuse faith and works, but this is not true. For the Catholic, faith in Christ is not opposed to the moral life. Faith opens the door to the moral life. Through faith, God’s love is “poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 5:5) Saving faith is a faith that works through love. (Galatians 5:6) Sukstorf argues that Catholic practice is “no longer about one’s faith in Christ, but about outward works.” From the Catholic point of view, this is simply a false dichotomy.
When Catholics say that some believers are set apart as moral examples, that some Christians should be recognize for the quality of their lives, we are confessing the teaching of Christ and Scripture. But there is more. Not only does God distinguish between “the greatest and the least;” St. James says that he listens to the prayers of the righteous more than to the prayers of the wicked. “The prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” (James 4:3; James 5:16). This is why Catholics actively seek out the prayers and intercession of the saints. Their prayers “availeth much.” This is why the prayers of the saints are necessary.
Sukstorf and Fleischman accuse us of confusing the meaning of salvation. The truth, however, is that Catholic belief and practice is grounded in a very biblical understanding of salvation. In the Bible (especially in the book of Ephesians) we learn that God wants to do more than save individuals. He wants to create a new human community, a family of God. We call this family the Church. This community is not like a normal human society. It is a supernatural community that transcends time and space. It encompasses everyone who is joined to Christ through faith – those on earth as well as those in heaven. It is a communion of love. In it, we support one another especially through prayer. As St. James says, “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another.” (James 5:16)
We find a beautiful picture of this community in the Book of Revelation. The biblical writer depicts angels and saints in heaven, “elders” who have already passed through death. These saints are praying and worshipping God and offering up the prayers of those still on earth. (Revelation 5:8; Revelation 8:3) It is a picture of the next life we also find reflected in Jewish literature from before the time of Christ. (2 Maccabees 15:12-16; Tobit 12:12-15)
This biblical picture of the Church explains why the earliest Christians found no difficulty asking for the prayers of the saints. This wasn’t a distraction from Christ. It was proof that the faithful on earth and the faithful in Heaven are still joined through Christ in holy friendship. Nor was devotion to the saints something that medieval Catholics made up. Even Protestant historians like Joachim Jeremias and secular historians like Peter Brown recognize that the practice is of Jewish origins. It reflects a thoroughly Hebraic, biblical, and communal picture of salvation. (Passages like 2 Kings 13:20-21 show how old these attitudes are.)
Peter Brown also notes that pagans in Rome were perplexed by Christian devotion to the saints and their relics. Early Christians worshipped in cemeteries, catacombs, and among the dead. This was something pagans did not do. But the pagans failed to grasp why Christians did this. The earliest Christians believed in resurrection: the dead in Christ will rise again. Devotion to the saints and their relics witnessed to this faith. For Catholic Christians, death does not have the last word.
Again, devotion to the saints is not something that appeared in the middle ages. It’s been part of Christianity from the beginning. Nor is it simply a Roman Catholic practice. Wherever you look in the ancient Christian world – Latin, Greek, Syriac, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Malabar (Indian), Assyrian (Persian), Catholic or Orthodox – we find devotion to the saints. Consistent opposition to the practice arose only in the Protestant Reformation – some 1500 years after the resurrection of Christ.
Some non-Catholics wonder, “Why bother praying to saints? Why not just pray directly to God?” This objection simply doesn’t do justice to Catholic belief and practice. Of course Catholics pray directly to God! But biblical religion is a corporate affair. We pray directly to God, but we also pray and suffer for one another. St. Paul says we are Christ’s co-laborers. (2 Corinthians 6:1) He could even say, “I fill up in my own flesh whatever is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.” (Colossians 1:24)
The Bible says the church is “a mystery.” (Ephesians 5:32) One great mystery is why God would use men to accomplishes his purposes. God can give grace and forgiveness to each one directly, of course, but he also chooses to use human instruments. Christ told his apostles, “Whoever sins you forgive are forgiven.” (John 20:23). “What you bind on earth is bound in heaven.” (Matt. 18:18). God struck down St. Paul, but then sent him to Ananias to be baptized. (Acts 9:11-19)
One reason for this great mystery is that Christ wants to identify with us in the work of salvation. He identifies with us so closely that whatever you do to Christians, you do to Christ. When Saul was persecuting the infant Church, Jesus said to him, “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4) The early church father St. Gregory of Nyssa once said, “He who beholds the church really beholds Christ.” This captures the logic of Christian devotion to the saints. We do not worship the saints. We venerate Christ in his members.
If you are a non-Catholic Christian, we commend you for praying to God. By all means keep on praying! But Catholics are not wrong to love our brothers and sisters in heaven, or for also believing that they love and pray for us. Catholics and non-Catholics alike ask Christian friends to pray for them. How much more our Christian friends in heaven! Scripture says they do, and so does the unbroken practice of Christian faith down through the centuries.