As my wife and I take walks with our children through the neighborhood, it is easy enough to identify some of our fellow-Catholics. The statues of Mary and (sometimes) St. Francis of Assisi are indication enough. I'd like to talk about our understanding of the saints, and in particular, the practice of asking for their intercession through prayer.
"Why do you Catholics pray to saints and Mary? Why can't you just pray to Christ, himself?"
These questions, ones which nearly all of us have been asked, have several foundational problems, not the least of which is the idea that prayer must be an either/or proposition. Either we pray to the saints or we pray to Christ. So, before exploring deeper, it is important to remember that our tradition is steeped in devotion to Christ, the Father, and the Holy Spirit. One of the problems when talking to non-Catholics, however, is with the definition of what prayer is. Typically, there are four types of prayer: thanksgiving, repentance, worship, and request. For sure, the first three belong exclusively to God. But what of the fourth?
Those who criticize Catholics for praying to saints have no problem whatsoever, with asking a co-worker, a family member, or a neighbor to "keep me in your prayers." After all, Scripture is very clear that the "prayer of a righteous man availeth much". God is pleased when we turn to one another and join together in our prayers. We are members of the same body of Christ (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:25-27) and of one another (Eph. 4:25), and the Church refers to this mystery as the "communion of saints".
Yet notice the contradiction. If I asked my Baptist friend to pray for me, he would never think of responding, "Why are you asking me to pray for you when you could spend that time praying straight to God." However, when we pray to saints, this is all we are doing. We are saying, in essence, "St. Joseph, I have a problem. Would you keep me in your prayers." Switch St. Joseph's name with that of any living relative, and the request sounds pretty normal, doesn't it? Let's apply some math. If I ask for Mary to pray for me - even though this takes a few moments that I could have prayed straight to God, himself, suddenly I have two people praying for my situation. And if I take a moment to ask St. Francis to pray for me - even though this takes a few moments that I could have prayed straight to God - suddenly I now have three people praying for me. Suddenly, for every prayer I've offered to God, I know that Mary and St. Francis have offered their own on my behalf, just as if I had walked around the office and asked my co-workers to pray for me.
It isn't that I am praying to the saints INSTEAD of Christ. Rather, we are all praying to Christ together, and for each person I ask to join me (whether living or dead), I have multiplied the prayers to Christ for that intention, not reduced them. And think about it - the prayer of a righteous man availeth much ... and who is more "righteous" than those who have already entered Heaven?
Scripture is full of examples of people interceding for others, and of God acting on one person's behalf because of the requests of another. Christ helps the wedding party (despite his inclination to remain private in his ministry) because of Mary's request (Jn. 2:3-5). In the Old Testament, the Queen Mother of the Davidic Kingdom serves as a counselor to the king (Prov. 31:8-9; 2 Chr. 22:2-4). Children have guardian angels who protect them (Mt. 18:10). Onians and Jeremiah intercede for the Jews before the resurrection (2 Mac. 15:11-16). Paul tells us to pray and make supplications for the saints (Eph. 6:18). The angel Raphael said, "I can now tell you that when you, Tobit, and Sarah prayed, it was I who presented and read the record of your prayer before the Glory of the Lord; and I did the same thing when you used to bury the dead" (Tobit 12:12).
But wait a second - its fine and good to say that praying to the saints is like asking our friends to pray for us, but aren't they dead? How could they hear us?
"As for the dead being raised," Christ says in Mk: 12:26-27, "have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God told him, 'I am the God of Abraham, [the] God of Isaac, and [the] God of Jacob'? He is not the God of the dead, but of the LIVING."
After we die, while our physical bodies must await the end of time, our spirits are very much alive in Christ. We are still part of the body of Christ. Some will object that only God is omniscient, so only he can hear all these prayers, but Scripture tells us that the saints share in God's divine knowledge (1 Cor. 13:9-12) and his divine authority and power (2 Tim. 2:12, Rev. 22:5; Rev. 2:26-28), and in the fullness of God (Eph. 3:19; 1 John 3:2). Saints can hear our prayers because God invites them into his beautific vision, and through his power, they are become that "great cloud of witnesses" that oversee all that we do (Heb. 12). We can see this most clearly in Rev. 5:13-14, when John writes, "And I heard every creature in Heaven and on earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, 'To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!'" Obviously the "elders", or saints, in Heaven also heard all of this praise from earth, because they fell down and answered, "Amen!" John, in his vision of Heaven, and the elders that resided there were made aware of the praise from all of existence through their closeness to God's omniscience.
In fact, despite objections to the contrary, there are actual examples in Scripture of the saints hearing and answering our prayers.
In Jer. 31:15-16, Rachel intercedes for her children after her death (Jeremiah was written hundreds of years after Rachel died, yet her "voice was heard"). Rev. 5:8 tells us that "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."
Now think about this verse from Revelation 5. The elders are offering up the "prayers of the holy ones". Some of Revelation is symbolic. I'm sure that the saints will not carry actual bowls of incense. However, the truth that shines here is that they are offering the prayers of others to God.
As Catholics, we must never be ashamed of the fact that, even after they have passed on, we embrace our fellow Christians. And we must never shy away from asking our brothers and sisters, these "righteous" men and women, to offer their own prayers to be joined with ours. On earth or in Heaven, they are part of the mystical body of Christ, and their intercession is part of God's plan for the unity of his communion of Saints.