On the Intercession of the Saints
“A Christian people celebrates together in religious solemnity the memorials of the martyrs, both to encourage their being imitated and so that it can share in their merits and be aided by their prayers” (St. Augustine of Hippo, 400 A.D.).
“We make mention also of those who have already fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition” (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, 350 A.D.).
As the canonizations of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II are coming up this weekend, I’d like to dwell on the importance of the intercession of the saints on behalf of the Church of Christ. Some ask, “Why do Catholics venerate the saints and ask for their prayers?” I’d like to offer a brief response.
- The practice is biblical: In the Book of Revelation, St. John writes, “The twenty-four elders [the leaders of the people of God in heaven] fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev. 5:8). Sorting through the symbolic language, a reader of this passage comes to see that the saints in heaven (the “twenty-four elders”) offer the prayers of the earthly saints (Christians) to God (the Lamb). In a particularly Catholic fashion, the believers in heaven give these prayers to Jesus in “golden bowls full of incense.” Additionally, Christians affirm that followers of Jesus do not die. Therefore, just as one might ask a friend here on earth to pray for a certain cause, one might ask a friend in heaven to pray on his or her behalf. St. James claims, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (5:16). Since the righteous in heaven are perfectly righteous, their prayers must be especially strong!
- The practice is historically viable: The leaders of the early Church universally agreed that Christians should invoke the prayers of the saints in heaven. Hermas, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Cyprian of Carthage, Methodius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Hilary of Poitiers, Ephraim the Syrian, Basil, Pectorius, Gregory of Nanzianz, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, and Augustine all preached this doctrine with clarity. Since the Roman Catholic Church is in continuity with the early Church, it unfailingly promotes the intercession of the saints. While there are some who claim that this practice has a solely pagan origin, they are mistaken. Actually, this form of prayer goes back to the ancient Israelites. The veneration of saints in heaven was abhorrent to the pagans of the Roman Empire, and it is for this reason that the early Christians promoted it: namely, so that they could distinguish themselves from the polytheistic milieu.
- The practice does not de-legitimize the authority of Christ as the sole mediator between God and humanity: true Christians are forever members of the body of Christ, so Catholics call upon the saints for prayer as an expression of their love for Jesus, who in turn expresses himself through the Church. It is not permissible to draw a hard and fast line between the body of Christ (the Church) and the person of Jesus. It is precisely because Catholics worship Jesus alone that they ask for the intercessions of the saints in heaven, as the saints in heaven are eternally in communion with the Redeemer.
With these ideas in mind, we should call upon John XXIII and John Paul II to offer our prayers to Christ in their bowls of incense. Their devotion to Jesus should inspire us, and their proximity to the risen Lord should give us confidence in the effectiveness of their petitions on our behalf.
May God bless you in abundance,
David J.W. Inczauskis