What is a Saint and where did the idea of Saints come from?
For the Church, all Christians are understood to be saints because of the Holy Spirit they received during baptism. As the Holy Spirit dwells within us we have become temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). For St Paul and the Church, the dwelling of God within someone made them holy (1 Cor 1:30). The term ‘saint’ quite literally means ‘holy one’.
This being said, whilst here on the earth, we are still developing and struggling to live perfectly holy lives. St Paul acknowledges this in his address to the Colossians (Col 1:2-12). He begins by addressing them as “the saints and faithful brethren in Christ at Colos′sae” (Col 1:2). He later goes on to pray that these same people may be strengthened by God so that they may share in the inheritance of the “saints of light” (Col 1:11-12). Hebrews 12:1 goes on to say how those in heaven have not left us but are rather a cloud of witnesses that surround us on our journey. These heavenly witnesses, we are told in Rev 6:9-10, are not simple bystanders but instead are crying out to God for redress in response to everything they witness here on earth.
Where did the idea of intercession for others come from?
As scholar Scott Hahn says, “[Due to us sharing] in the life and divine nature of Christ, we share in his singular office as the one mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5)”. St Paul makes this clear in 1 Timothy 2:1 and, it is because of this, he could promise the saints in Colos′sae of his own intersession for them on their behalf (Col 1:9). Intersession for one another to this day remains a core tenant of our Christian faith.
Notably though, intercession does not stop at death. Rev 6:9-10’s account is important here, but our best example of intersession after death comes from Luke 16:27-28. In this story of the Rich Man and Laz’arus, after death the Rich Man calls out to God for the salvation for his family.
Is praying with the saints necromancy?
Now we have established that those in the next life pray for those in this, we need to look at whether we can or should ask for their intersession. Amongst others, Deut 18:10-12 explicitly forbids calling up the dead along with several other occult practices that were prevalent around the time of Moses.
Fundamental to this question then is: are the saints of light dead? From a Catholic mind-set, no they are not. John 11:25-26 and John 3:16 state how even though we physically die, we do in fact enter eternal life. We believe that this life is a greater life than the one we life here (Rom 8:18), as these people are in the presence of God, the very source of life (Gen 1).
Also key to our belief is the idea that this entering the presence of God happens right after death (Luke 23:43). While we do not receive our resurrected bodies until the second coming, we will have entered the next stage of life. It is with this understanding that we believe we can commune with the saints still. From a Catholic mindset the only one who is truly dead is the one who has rejected the love of God and is therefore in hell (John 3:36).
Is praying with the saints a holdover from paganism?
Quite the opposite! The scholar Peter Brown emphasises it was not the case and points out how many pagans, like the Manicheans and Hellenic pagans, described the practice as unseemly. Neither was it a superstition of the lower classes or ancestor worship.
While there are hundreds of archaeological examples from the early church period showing a passionate devotion to the saints in light, the practice is most well documented and kept by early Church fathers like St Jerome, St Augustine and St John Chrysostom. Each is documented having lively devotions, but most important here is St Augustine who wrote many sermons on saints’ lives and wrote extended defences of Catholic devotions to the saints, in response to the Manicheans. Devotion to the saints began as celebration of their unity with Christ through death. To this day, most saints feast days are on the day of their death, celebrating their birth into new life!
All this said, what should be acknowledged is that the practice of ‘patron’ saints, likely does have some influence from Germanic paganism. In his series of lectures entitled The Catholic Church: A History, Prof William Cook points out that with the conversion particularly of the Frankish Kingdom, missionaries had the taxing job of converting the culture of the people to the faith as well as the individuals. One of the ways they did this was by replacing the plethora of minor patron gods with devotion to the saints. In this way, many were helped on their conversation to the new faith as their daily devotion could remain fairly similar, but instead of calling on Thor for support in battle they would turn to St George, St Marius or St Michael. In actual truth, you can ask any of the saints for support with any issue!
Are we worshiping the saints?
No, trying to worship the saints is a futile act, as shown in Acts 14:8-18, when the men of Lyconia wished to offer sacrifice to the apostles as gods. No holy being will ever accept worship because worship belongs to God alone (Revelation 19:10).
What we do instead is respect and honour them, similar to how we respect and honour our parents and grandparents here on earth. We call this honouring of the saints ‘veneration’. We venerate them because their life was a life of gradual sanctification and growth in devotion to God, which means they are now united with God who shines through them (Galatians 2:20). Just like how the angel honours and acknowledges the grace of God within Mary (Luke 1:26-38), when we ask for the intersession of the saints we joyfully venerate how God is present so fully within them.
God is naturally at the core of this veneration. It is clearly distinct from worship because while worship glorifies something for its own achievements, veneration honours something for the achievements of God through them and the presence of God within them.
Why not pray directly to God?
Please do! Prayer to God is essential and prayer with the saints should only ever be a supplement and support to this relationship. We do not require the intersession of the saints for our salvation (Matt 19:25-26) but their example, support and intersession is no less welcome. In any great undertaking, the support of those around us can prove invaluable. Greater still is the support of those who have themselves completed the task.
It is with this understanding that Catholics ask for the intersession of the saints, not only of those in light but also our sister and brother Christians still alive today.