Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moralism. Christianity is instead an encounter, a love story, an event.
Pope Benedict XVI
I’ve recently had some conversations with a few people, Catholics, Protestants, and even non-believers, and there always seems to be confusion when it comes to the Blessed Mother and the Saints (even from Catholics themselves!).
I’ve wrote several pieces in the Q&A Series explaining Catholic beliefs and practices on a variety of commonly misinterpreted or misrepresented topics. (The include Do Catholics Worship Mary?, Do Catholics Worship Statues?, Do Catholics Believe Mary Can Give Them Salvation?, and the ever popular Should We Pray To Jesus Or The Saints?) but as King Solomon said, “there is nothing new under the sun,” so covering these topics will always be relevant and needed. Not just from an apologetics standpoint, but also from a catechetical one as well. We Catholics need to not only defend our faith from baseless attacks, but we must also know our faith well enough to not fall into heresy or be led into schism.
So with all this in mind, I’d like to repeat just a couple of things:
1. The Saints are models of faith.
They are models of faith for us, just like a hall of fame baseball player is the model of the perfect swing or pitch for a new ball player. Just like young doctors look up to, and read the research of those that came before them.
But one thing we always need to keep in mind is this; we emulate and imitate the Saints because they emulated and imitated Christ. Saint Paul told the Corinthians to imitate him, because he was imitating Christ.
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
1 Corinthians 11:1b
Saint Paul is the perfect example of one to emulate because of his imitation of Christ. And what was it that caused a man that so hated Christians to become a model of the Christian life? Pope Benedict XVI said it was an encounter with Jesus Himself,
St. Paul did not consider the event as a conversion. And the reason is very clear: this transformation of his life was not the result of a psychological process, of an intellectual or moral evolution … but the fruit of his meeting with Christ Jesus. … St. Paul’s renewal cannot be explained in any other way. Psychological analyses cannot clarify and resolve the problem; only an event, the forceful encounter with Christ, is the key to understanding what happened.
Pope Benedict XVI
We aren’t called to imitate Saint Paul because of his awesomeness, or his great achievements, because he recognized that all his achievements were due to his remaining in the will of Christ. And this submission to the will of Christ was brought about by a radical conversion due to an encounter with Him. Jesus Himself told us that without Him we can do nothing (John 15:5).
The most amazing attribute of the Saints, and the thing that really sets them apart, is thier conformity to the will of God. They allowed themselves to be molded like a blank piece of clay, into what the eventually became. Whether that included martyrdom, torture, a life of solitude, or whatever other unpleasantries we can imagine, they done it all willingly because they believed it was the will of God.
I’m writing this on the feast of Saint Dennis, and he is a great example. He was the first bishop of Paris, and was martyred for the faith. Why is his life remarkable, and why should we emulate him? Because he answered the call, and followed God’s will all the way to his beheading. Saint Dennis, like all the Martyrs, point us to the One for whom they gave thier lives; Jesus Christ.
2. The Saints Intercede
I believe strongly in the power of intercessory prayer, especially the intercession of the saints (The Communion of Saints). We ask the saints to pray for us, because they are purely righteous and justified in heaven. We know this because of the fact that they are in heaven, and no uncleanliness can enter there.
Because of this pure righteousness, there prayers are even more powerful than the prayers of our fellow Christians here on earth. Saint James said, “the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effect,” (James 5:16) and you can’t get anymore righteous than those enjoying the Beatific Vision.
The saints do not do anything of their own power or their own will. Enjoying the Beatific Vision means to be perfectly conformed to the will of God, and those in heaven take our prayers to God for us. They have no power of their own, but do only what God wills.
That leads to the next point.
3. We Don’t Pray To Saint In Place Of Christ
I’ve heard a few people accuse Catholics of approaching the Saints, and especially the Blessed Mother, because we don’t think we can approach Jesus directly. I’ve never heard a Catholic say that but I’ll address it nonetheless.
We ask the Saints to pray for us because of thier righteousness, and because they are fully alive in heaven and unencumbered by the cares and concerns of earthly life. But we also pray directly to God, both the Father and the Son, and to the Holy Spirit too.
We believe we are unworthy and unclean, so unable to approach the throne of God and make any requests, if we still lived under the Law, but we now live under Grace, and it’s not our worthiness that matters. (Romans 6:14)
Christ is worthy, and because of His redemptive death on Calvary we are able to approach God directly. Jesus is the mediator of the New Covenant (Hebrews 9:15), and because of this we can “boldly approach the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16).
Catholics believe in many things as “both/and.” We don’t say “either pray to Jesus, or ask a Saint to pray to Him on your behalf,” we pray to Jesus, making our requests known to Him, but we also ask Saints to be our “prayer partners” (to use a Protestant phraseology) and join us in that prayer.
If we are asking saints to pray for us because we don’t think we are worthy to pray to God ourselves, then we need to do some more soul searching and get to know Jesus and His Church a little better.
4. All The Saints Point to Christ
This one is pretty similar to my first point, but has to be reiterated. When we read the lives of the saints we always have to remember the object of all their love and devotion; they were committed wholeheartedly to Jesus and His Church. We have to see thier lives as a living, breathing Testament to the transformative power of an encounter with Jesus Christ.
Christianity is not a system of teachings by a great guru and His followers, it’s about a person, it’s about the Creator of the Universe becoming Man, and dying for us. It’s all about Jesus. And properly read and studied, every Saint’s life is about Him too.
That’s what we have to understand, this life is properly and fully lived, when it’s lived for Christ.
Christianity is not a new philosophy or a new form of morality. We are only Christians if we encounter Christ, even if He does not reveal Himself to us as clearly and irresistibly as he did to Paul in making him the Apostle of the Gentiles. We can also encounter Christ in reading Holy Scripture, in prayer, and in the liturgical life of the Church – touch Christ’s heart and feel that Christ touches ours. And it is only in this personal relationship with Christ, in this meeting with the Risen One, that we are truly Christian.
Pope Benedict XVI