Why do we pray to saints?
Catholics believe that prayer as worship is something we give to God alone. But our prayer to saints is not worship: when we pray to saints, we are not honoring them as Creator of the universe, as the One who gives us life and every other good thing. We are not asking them to forgive our sins or thanking them for the grace and gift of salvation. When we pray to saints, we are doing something quite different: We are asking them to pray for us.
In your church, do people ever pray for each other? Do members of your church pray for those that are sick? Do they pray for the lost to come to Christ? Do they pray for the hungry and the oppressed throughout the world? Of course, they do. Why? Why do you ask other people to pray for you? Why not just pray to God for yourself?
For Catholics, our Church doesn’t just exist on earth. We believe that the holy ones are alive and live forever with God. We call that the Communion of Saints. So just as members of their church pray for one another, member of our church pray for one another, too – all of our church’s members: those with us now on earth, and those with God in heaven.
There are lots of places in the New Testament that tell us it’s a good thing to pray for each other:
“You help us with prayer, so that thanks may be given by many on our behalf for the gift granted us through the prayers of many.” (2 Cor 1:11)
"Finally, brothers, pray for us, (...) that we may be delivered from perverse and wicked people, for not all have faith.” (2 Thess 3:1-2)
The Bible tells us that it’s good thing for people to pray for one another. Where in the Bible does it say the deceased are excluded from that circle? Actually, there’s a place or two in the Bible that includes them:
“When he took [the scroll], the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each of the elders held a harp and gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the holy ones.” (Rev 5:8)
Only Jesus was capable of achieving a reconciliation with God. As Paul writes, “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1Tim 2:5). This is the belief of most Christians. It has always been the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.
There is, however, a less strict sense in which Christians from the earliest times have understood the idea of mediation. This is the idea by which we participate in the mediation of Jesus Christ. It is a mediation that is effective through, with, and in Christ.
Let’s examine the biblical foundation for this understanding with a special reference to 1 Timothy 2:5. In interpreting any passage of Scripture, certain principles must apply. For example, the Bible has one divine author but many human authors. In attempting to interpret a particular Bible passage correctly, it is imperative to begin by considering the passage in its context.
Paul’s first letter to Timothy 2:5 shows how these principles apply. If we consider this verse– “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”– apart from its context, it is easy to misinterpret. This passage is not isolated. It is a verse in a larger book called epistle.
Chapter two of 1 Timothy opens with the following exhortation: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men” (1 Tim 2:1).
Supplications, prayers, and intercessions are acts of mediation. Paul is instructing Timothy that Christians are to assume the role of a subordinate mediator between God and men. As a practical matter, the vast majority of Christians pray for one another. How, then, is it different to ask to ask the Christians in heaven to pray for us on earth?
One significant theme that runs through the books of the Bible is the idea of covenant. The covenant is God’s oath by which he makes us his people, his family. The Bible demonstrates that the Father chooses to engage his weak and sinful children in the family business, which is the salvation of souls. Thus, Paul, following his plea for “supplications, prayers, and intercessions,” instructs Timothy that this mediation is pleasing to God: “This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:4).
In the New Testament, Jesus gathered the apostles and assigned them roles of mediation. He instructed them to evangelize and baptize (Mt 28:18-20), to forgive sins (John 20:23), and to celebrate the Eucharist (1 Cor 11:23-25). All actions of mediation!
The truth of Christians participating in the one mediation of Jesus Christ is abundantly clear in the practice of the early Church:
“A phenomenon of great significance in the patristic period was the rise and gradual development of veneration for the saints, more particularly for the Blessed Virgin Mary,” writes respected Protestant patrologist J.N.D. Kelly in Early Christian Doctrines.
“...Earliest in the field was the cult of martyrs, the heroes of the faith whom Christians held to be already in God’s presence. At first it took the form of the reverent preservation of their relics and the annual celebration of their ‘birthday.’ From this it was a short step, since they were now with Christ in glory, to seeking their help and prayers, and in the third century evidence for the belief in their intercessory power accumulated.”