The saints are models of human excellence, perfected by the life of Christ and the communication of his Spirit. They demonstrate by their lives how to really live and how to really die. They consistently point to the horizon of love which leads to the fulfillment of all human desire: eternal communion with the Holy Trinity.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
1 November 2016
By our devotion to the saints, our heavenly brothers and sisters in Christ who have gone before us, and by their prayers of intercession, fraternal charity is exercised, which contributes to the unity of the Church and aids us on our pilgrim journey.
We celebrate the Solemnity of All Saints, as it is celebrated every liturgical year, on November 1st. The feast of all saints dates to the earliest days of the Church when Christians would often solemnize the date of a martyr’s death for Christ at the particular location of his or her martyrdom. As the practice of venerating martyrs grew, eventually the celebration of their lives and deaths could not be assigned to individual days of the year—there were simply far too many saints to honor with a particular feast! After some development over the centuries, a chapel in the Basilica of St. Peter was consecrated by Pope Gregory III to all the saints, with its annual date of celebration set on November 1st. Pope Gregory IV extended the celebration to the universal Church, and thus, officially, we have the Solemnity of All Saints.
The long-standing Catholic tradition of honoring and venerating the saints—of course, a solidly Christian tradition of the nascent Church—who have gone before us sometimes (though not always) seems puzzling to our Protestant brethren, and entirely unworthy of one’s attention from a secularized viewpoint. What’s important about the lives of the saints? What do they have to do with me, here and now? Is it of benefit to pray to the saints or not?
One could draw analogies that show how, even from a secular point of view, people honor others who lived in earlier times and have since died. We might think of Abraham Lincoln or George Herman “Babe” Ruth or Martin Luther King Jr. or Elvis Presley or any number of others who, more or less, impacted society and the world in a variety of diverse ways. Learning about these people, if they led virtuous lives, can have a positive impact on us in the present. They can serve as worthy role models. However, not everyone admired by popular culture led a virtuous life. Many set the wrong kind of example through an egocentric life of vice and thus have led the unwary into deadly traps.
The saints, however, stand out in luminous distinction. These are people who, in union with Christ and filled with his Spirit, led lives of heroic virtue rooted in faith, hope, and charity. Their life was centered on one Person: the Son of God who became man and died for the redemption of mankind. The lives of the saints were governed by “the way and the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6), Jesus Christ, whose leadership is the way of service and example, the way of perfection, mercy, and love. Therefore the saints were generally not popular cultural figures who somehow left their mark. Although often unknown to the worldly multitude, their lives hidden in God, the saints are unrepeatable, unique and exemplary examples of what it means to live human life to its fullest. They show us not only the true goal of humanity but how that goal is attained. In virtue of their total union with Christ, the saints consistently offer humankind a pattern of blessed life worthy of duplication.
The saints—all of them—are models of human excellence. They demonstrate by their lives how to really live and how to really die. They consistently point to the horizon of love which leads to the fulfillment of all human desire: eternal communion with the Holy Trinity: God the Father; the Son sent into the world by the Father in order to engage in total solidarity with humankind and, by voluntarily sacrificing his body and blood on the cross, gift us with life in abundance; the Holy Spirit, who is the Love of Father and Son personified, is sacramentally infused into the hearts of men in order to bestow upon us the gift of a share in the divine life of God, and build men up into the body of Christ, the Church. The saints’ lives shout of God’s glory and the path to him Who lies beyond death yet meets us, consoles us, fills us and guides us with his own divine light in the present.
Nevertheless, the saints offer more than simply serving as exemplary role models and guides to a fruitful and happy life. By their intercessory prayer, the saints help us in direct and concrete ways. This human assistance from the heavenly realm is not to be attributed solely to the power of the saints, of course, for that would be a kind of false worship, but primarily to the power of God, whose face they unceasingly gaze upon in total and consuming love. It is God who primarily acts and brings about a particular positive outcome/change in our lives in answer to prayer, whatever it may be, even if we do not recognize it for what it is or mistake it for something it is not; it is the saints, our friends in prayer, who plead before God on our behalf in order to obtain the divine assistance of God.
The saints, then, can influence our lives in vastly superior ways, since they are initiators through intercessory prayer of many spiritual benefits and goods we may receive from Almighty God. In the saints, we have ordinary people made extraordinarily great through the gift of God, whose words of prayer unfailingly reach God on our behalf. These are precisely the people a sane, rightly ordered and rational person wants to know!
Further, the merits of the saints’ works, which they have won in Christ through lives of faith, hope, and charity, can be communicated to others in the Church since all are joined together in the one body of Christ. This communion of goods in the Church means that the intercession of the saints can aid the entire Church (CCC 947).
The intercession of the saints. Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness. . . . They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus . . . . So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped. (CCC 956)
Some non-Catholic (and even some misinformed or uncatechized Catholics) Christians fear praying to the saints is idolatry at worst or, at best, a lack of sound prioritization of prayer time. This misunderstanding is based on a faulty understanding of the reality of God, the created order, and the family of saints in communion with him. Of course, we primarily pray to God the Father in his Son and through his Spirit. God rightly receives our priority in prayer. However, our relationship with God can never be diminished or wounded by also fostering a relationship with the saints. After all, the Son of God made man loved his mother, the sweet Virgin Mary who is Queen of the Saints, as well as his foster father, St. Joseph, and spent his entire childhood with his holy family without ever neglecting his love of and prayer to his heavenly Father.
Jesus loved his family with a love that far exceeds the possibilities of our love for our own families because he is perfect love in himself, as the Son of God; yet he did not in loving his family restrict his relationship with his Father in any way. In Jesus Christ, we have the perfect man who turns his attention to other members of the human family and builds relationships with them, while yet remaining in a perfect, unitive relationship of love with God the Father.
Refusing to engage in a relationship with the saints is precisely to turn our backs on our brothers and sisters in Christ, who image Christ most perfectly, second to Mary, the Mother of God. It is to ignore our heavenly family and to fail to love the very people Christ died for and whose love for us is without equal, although we fail to fully comprehend it in the present. None of this is supportive of the unity of the Church. The saints are our most excellent role models and friends in prayer because Christ has made them to be so! If we think of the saints as distant, extended family, we’re missing the reality of the way things are. They’re family as members of the one and same body of Christ, joined to Christ most intimately and forever; in virtue of that union and ours, so too they are joined to us.
Based on the incorrect idea that prayer can only mean communicating with God, some equate prayer to the saints with worship of the same. This notion, too, is false. When Catholics pray to a saint, the word prayer is used in the sense of to “communicate,” to “entreat,” to “ask.” Worship and adoration are given to God alone, who is deserving of all glory and our complete love; veneration and honor are given to the saints. We have a relationship to God as a created child to his divine Father; our relationship to the saints is one brother or sister in Christ to our honored and respected fellow brethren. The saints are worthy of our veneration in virtue of the exemplary earthly lives of faith, hope, and charity they led in union with Christ, as well as by virtue of their confirmation in Christ in the heavenly realm. But devotion to the saints reaches even further:
Communion with the saints. It is not merely by the title of example that we cherish the memory of those in heaven; we seek, rather, that by this devotion to the exercise of fraternal charity the union of the whole Church in the Spirit may be strengthened. Exactly as Christian communion among our fellow pilgrims brings us closer to Christ, so our communion with the saints joins us to Christ, from whom as from its fountain and head issues all grace, and the life of the People of God itself:
We worship Christ as God’s Son; we love the martyrs as the Lord’s disciples and imitators, and rightly so because of their matchless devotion towards their king and master. May we also be their companions and fellow disciples! (CCC 957)
Obviously, given the difficulties and trials we face here below, it is to our spiritual advantage to get to know and make friends with some of the saints. Because in doing so we are dealing with another person, it is necessary to open oneself up to that person through the initiation of a relationship; it is also necessary for that other person to open himself up also to us in some way. Communication must take place. An environment of mutual reception must be established. One person cannot know another in isolation but only through relationship, through communion. Prayer to the saints is simply to communicate, to initiate and foster a relationship. Who would ever try to grow a friendship with another person without ever contacting that person?
The goal of praying to the saints is to establish a friendship of unending and eternal value. It is to strengthen the union of the Church in the Spirit through the exercise of fraternal charity (CCC 957). Within the context of this friendship, our heavenly brothers and sisters in Christ intercede on our behalf that we may attain to the same kind of completeness and happiness they themselves possess. For this to occur, we too must become saints; we too must join in unity with Christ, our Divine King. And that is precisely what our friends dwelling above, the saints, pray for on our behalf.
It is important to remember that no one is born a saint; everyone must be made into a saint by the grace of God and everyone has the potential for that making. To become a saint is a process of transformation in cooperation with God. It begins with faith in Christ and baptism, it continues with a life lived sacramentally in the heart of the Church, strengthened by the Spirit and in union with Christ, the Master and King as his disciple, as another “Christ.” It is a life lived in harmony with God’s plan, not in opposition to it. It’s a life of love and happiness and, not without its sacrifice, a life of carrying one’s cross.
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Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.