Monday, June 9, 2008

I Pray Thee: A Defense for the Intercession of the Saints

One of my favorite bands has a song called “All My Heroes.” In this song the chorus goes like this: “You took away all my heroes. You shoved away, you threw away all my heroes, and now I can’t seem to find my way back home. You threw away . . .”. I cannot help but to think of my days as an Evangelical when I hear this song. As I have stated in my previous columns, I’m incredibly grateful for my days as an Evangelical as they prepared me for God’s ultimate call to come home to the Roman Catholic Church. However, as I reflect on those days I am saddened for the lack of devotion I gave to the great saints of the past (and present). It is in the midst of this sadness that the words from this song become my own. I look to the “Evangelical Matt,” and I ask him with quivered voice, “Why did you throw away your heroes?”

I could imagine myself responding boldly in a number of ways: “1) I have only one ‘hero,’ and his name is Jesus Christ. 2) Such veneration of these heroes of yours is spoken of nowhere in Scripture! 3) In fact, going to saints for mediation is anti-biblical because Scripture is clear that there is only ONE mediator and that is Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Tim. 2.5)! 4) Finally, by praying to saints you worship them, and worship is restricted for God alone!”

These four brief arguments can be quite compelling to many Catholics. Unfortunately, their power of persuasion has less to do with the veracity of the claims, and more to do with a lack of proper Catholic catechesis. So then, is it in fact true that Catholics worship the saints when they pray to them, engage in anti-biblical doctrines, and place the saints on par with the saving merits of Jesus Christ? The answer is an obvious no!

One of the most common objections from evangelicals revolves around the belief that praying is equivalent to worship. Such an association is a gross exaggeration of the biblical text. Like English, Greek can have many different words meaning roughly the same thing. Whether I tell you I went running or jogging today, the meaning is nearly identical. Similarly, Greek has at least six different uses for “prayer” which can be found in the New Testament. Some uses are strictly for petitions between men and God (i.e. proseukomai), while other forms are used for petitions between people (i.e. deomai). However, both mean to pray (or petition which is what pray means). The only difference is in the object of the petition: some petitions have as their object other people while some have as their object God. For instance, the eunuch in Acts 8, after hearing on Old Testament prophecy of Jesus from Philip, responds, “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this . . .” (vs. 34, RSV, emphasis mine). Notice how the eunuch “petitions” Philip for an answer and what is the word chosen? Yes, to pray! Prayer is not reduced to a function of worship, but rather its primary use is as an expression of petition which can have as its object both human and divine. Thus, Catholicism has not (nor ever) blurred the line between Creator and creature. She remains in full integrity with Holy Scripture (as always)!

Another objection stated above deals with the primacy of Jesus Christ for salvation and how the intercession of saints allegedly compromises that primacy. Many non-Catholics will quote 1 Tim. 2.5 as their “proof” for this argument. After all, the verse is clear that Jesus Christ is the sole mediator between God and man. How do we Catholics make sense of such a “threatening” scriptural text? That answer is quite simple really. First, if Jesus Christ is truly the sole mediator in all respects between God and man then what do we make of such scriptural texts as Mt. 5.44, Lk. 6.28, and Acts 8.15 when we are called to pray for others? Isn’t praying for others precisely a function of being a mediator between a particular person and God? Do not both Catholics and Protestants alike ask others to pray for them? What then is 1 Timothy speaking of when the text speaks of Christ’s exclusive role as mediator? To answer this we must make the distinction between a mediator for salvation and a mediator of salvation. There is only one mediator for salvation, and that is Jesus Christ. There is no other name in which man can be saved (cf. Acts. 4.12). However, there are many mediators of salvation. In other words, while there is only one name in which humanity can be saved, there are many names that can bring “other names” to the “one name” who is Christ our Lord. Again, intercessory prayer does not diminish the primacy of Christ. Yes, we have one “Hero” for our salvation, but we have many heroes who have lived the life in the One Hero and who have become our witnesses to hope!

Finally, we come to the objection that the veneration of and praying to saints is nowhere to be found in Scripture. It is good to begin such a contentious topic as this with a definition of terms. Equivocation, using a word with two or more definitions with an implicit intent to deceive, is at the center of most failed arguments. For the sake of this column, we only need to clarify ‘veneration.’ Webster’s definition of ‘veneration’ is “respect or awe inspired by the dignity, wisdom, dedication, or talent of a person.” Knowing that all dignity, wisdom, and talent have for their origin in God, I find it an unthinkable travesty to deny or diminish the fruits of God’s work in human lives through a rejection of devotion to the great saints of the past and present.

As for a Scriptural example of veneration, did not St. Paul exhort the Philippian community to imitate himself (cf. Php. 3.15)? This exhortation is all the more shocking when one realizes that the apostle had only verses earlier wrote a beautiful Christological hymn (cf. Php. 2.5-11). Such a poetic masterpiece would have been the ideal opportunity to exhort the community to imitate Christ. Instead, St. Paul continues to write about himself in light of the Christological hymn, only after that does he call for an imitation; an imitation of himself (cf. Php. 3.1-16). Did St. Paul usurp the glory and honor due only to God through a self-aggrandizement? By no means! Imitating Christ is the ideal, but Christ’s perfection is due to his own person, not by grace. On the other hand, St. Paul’s spiritual mastery is due to grace. By imitating the saints we do not threaten God’s glory, but rather concretize or ground it existentially in human life.

We must now look at the Biblical evidence for the saints being alive, very near to use, able to actually hear us, and a powerful intercessory advocate for salvation. The Sadducees were a Jewish sect that did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. One day, the sect challenged Christ’s teaching on the resurrection (cf. Mt. 22.23-33). In response, Jesus quoted Exodus 3:6 which spoke of Yahweh being the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (cf. vs. 32). The apologetic force of this quotation was due to God’s use of the present tense when referring to the three greatly venerated figures. God is still (not was) the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob even centuries after their death. Thus, they are still very much alive! How much more are the saints of Christ alive since Christ has destroyed death.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews takes the life of the deceased saints a step further. In chapter eleven, the faith of the great Old Testament “saints” is praised, drawn out for encouragement to the community. Exactly how these righteous men and women are to be an encouragement is not explained until chapter twelve. Here we see that we are never alone. Yes, God is always with us, but it is never simply “He and I.” Rather, the saints surround us continuously as a “cloud of witness”, supporting and encouraging us as we finish strong in the name of our Lord (cf. Heb. 12.1).

Can these saints hear us? The answer to that lay in chapters four and five of the Book of Revelation. These chapters paint two beautiful but very different portraits of liturgical worship, and what divides these two liturgical settings is the Christ event. Chapter four is rich in Temple imagery. Worship is given to God but in a way that may appear awkward to some readers. The angels of heaven are singing with only silence coming from earth below (cf. Rev. 4.8-11). There is a divide between heaven and earth. However, in chapter five, liturgical worship takes an enormous leap forward. The great chasm between heaven and earth has been destroyed through the cross of Jesus Christ. The worship of God continues. Now, however, heaven and earth sing glory to God in unison (cf. Rev. 5.13-14)! The saints in heaven can hear us clearly so we ought to ask them to intercede on our behalf.

Why ought we ask them to intercede for us? Because the righteous person’s prayer has incredible power (cf. Jms. 5.18). Who is more righteous than the saints in heaven? Pray and pray hard. Pray to these holy men and women who have fought the good fight and have come out victorious! Pray to the great saints of the Church for intercession, and pray with confidence that your prayer will be received before the throne of God with purity and persuasion!

I would like to end with a brief story from my own life regarding a saintly hero who had found me long before I had found him. Whether this event happened weeks preceding or proceeding my reversion is unknown to me nor does it matter. What I do know is that my heart was burning for Christ and his Church at the time.

It was midway through the spring semester of 2000. I had finished classes for the day so I headed home for some downtime. Like most students, downtime means TV. I threw my bag on my bed and proceeded to the living room for some mindless amusement. Unfortunately, afternoon viewing is filled with Soap Operas and Court TV. I found myself peddling through the channels over and over again, clicking the remote endlessly so as to “beat some time.” Just before falling into a mind-numbing trance, an image caught my eye on the TV. The image was of a man, but not any ordinary man. I recognized him, but how since I had never seen him in my life? I remember distinctly hearing in my head, “Oh, I know him. He is responsible for me reversion.” The thought came to me entirely void of emotion and as a simple “matter of fact.” Intrigued by this thought of mine, I decided to find out who this man was. Less than a minute into the show I hear the words, “Blessed Padre Pio was . . .”. I had no idea what blessed meant nor was I formally acquainted with a Padre Pio. The only thing I was convinced of was that Padre Pio knew me quite well, and it was time for me to get formally acquainted with my long ignored spiritual father.

It was a year after this event before I began reading about Padre Pio, and it was then that I first learned that this heroic saint had chosen “spiritual sons” to dedicate his life to in prayer. In fact this has always been a unique charism of his. I’m incredibly humbled by St. Padre Pio’s dedication to me. I know not why, for I am truly unworthy. Maybe that is the reason why. I simply need his prayers otherwise I will fade away into the bankrupt temptations of this world. After all, I am here today because of St. Pio. I pray that each of us discovers the saints who are pursuing us intensely for the greater Glory of God. St. Padre Pio, Pray for Us!

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