The practices of the Catholic Church are often more misinterpreted than correctly taught. Countless times our faith gets turned on its head and thrown back at us in the form of an accusation. St. Peter tells us that we ought to be ready for such occasions, we should be prepared to make a defense for our faith (1 Peter 3:15).
One of the biggest stumbling blocks that hinder relations with our fundamentalist brothers and sisters centers around the communion of saints. From an outsider’s perspective, praying to the saints (emphasis added), i.e. someone other than God alone, can be very off-putting to non-Catholics. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that same rebuttal, “I just go directly to God.”
“Before we can pray with the saints, we must pray to them.
Before you ride in a taxi WITH the driver, you must flag them down first. Right?”
Here’s the deal: Catholics go directly to God with their prayers as well – we just get by with a little help from our friends. (See what I did there?) “Praying to the saints” is often muffled and diluted down to a turn-of-phrase that reads “praying with the saints” which is also correct but fails to capture what is actually happening. We pray with the saints in that our prayers are joined with theirs, but when someone says “praying to the saints” they are talking about a different moment in the process. In fact, before we can pray with the saints, we must pray to them. Before you ride in a taxi WITH the driver, you must flag them down first. Right?
That flagging down of the taxi driver is a petition; a request. Intercession is the prayerful act of taking on the petition or request of another. To intercede implies a literal stepping in on someone’s behalf. When we flag down the driver with our waving arm, our hope is for them to notice us…
Since Abraham, intercession—asking on behalf of another—has been characteristic of a heart attuned to God’s mercy. In the age of the Church, Christian intercession participates in Christ’s, as an expression of the communion of saints. In intercession, he who prays looks “not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others,” even to the point of praying for those who do him harm. – Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2635
So what, then, is the big deal? Why is praying “to” the saints such a hot-button issue?
Much of it stems from the misconstrued understanding non-Catholics tend to have. The culture of non-Catholic Christianity is steeped in a fundamentalist understanding of Sacred Scripture. To make matters worse, it is steeped in varying and personal interpretations of Scripture. What we are left with are conflicting understandings concerning basic principles of the faith. Any Christian would agree that asking a friend to pray for them is an encouraged practice. Getting others involved in our struggle towards holiness allows for a heightened sense of accountability. The problem many of our separated brethren run into is the idea that Catholics pray to “dead people.”
Au contraire mon frère! (On the contrary, my brother!)
Sacred Scripture insists that to be present with God, that is, to be living in eternal beatitude, means being more alive than we are now on this side of eternity. You see, man was meant for eternal, open communion with God. The kind of communion we enjoyed in the Garden of Eden before the fall. Sin, however, meant the beginning is death and decay in our world. Because of sin we experience a multitude of pains and struggles, and by the work of our own hands we work ourselves back into the dust from which we first came. It is in our faithful finishing of this race that we gain access to what we’ll call “life before the fruit.” Saints are those individuals who, by miracles associated with their intercession, the Church has confirmed their entrance into the heavenly state. These individuals live in a most perfect communion with Christ, our Lord.
One could infer at this point that these holy individuals have the ear of God. Having the ear of God insomuch as their prayers are untainted by pride, greed, or some other stain of our sinful state; they are able to pray as they ought. Their prayers are more perfect than ours. Keeping that in mind, we gather that where our prayers become bogged down by our sinfulness, their prayers pick up our slack. And this brings us back around to where we began; before our prayers can be joined with theirs we must first invoke their prayers. This act of asking, of making a humble petition to these holy individuals, is not a form of detraction from God or some feeble form of idolatry. Praying to the saints means going directly to God with as much prayer power as we can muster.
The first Christian communities lived this form of fellowship intensely. – CCC #2636