Our attendance at an Anglo-Catholic Church on the Feast of the Assumption last Sunday, and the dramatic (to me, at least) displays of Marian devotion that we saw there, jarred me into thinking about prayers to Mary and to the saints in general in a more systematic way than I yet have. No doubt any Catholic reading this will be shocked at my dullness (“Well, duh…did that really never occur to you before?”) and any Protestant will be shocked at my brazenness (“Are you serious? How could you even venture to think that?”) but here it is, all the same.
On what basis do Protestants object to prayers to and for the saints?
Now, of course, there have been terrible abuses; the Reformers were right to protest against devotion to the saints that bordered on (or plunged headlong into) idolatry, and on the whole system of indulgences that grew up around prayers for the dead. God alone is God, Jesus alone is our Saviour, and any teachings or practices that exalts or overemphasizes human beings so that they come to compete with God is justly condemned. Medieval Catholicism, and much modern Catholicism, I think, is easily critiqued on these lines. But on what basis do we condemn, not the abuses, but the whole concept, in principle? Prayers for the dead are pretty easily defended: the dead have a long way yet to grow in glorification (it does not occur all in one moment), and we can therefore pray that God will bless them in that and mature and glorify them further. It doesn’t work to argue that the prayer is pointless, since we know God will do that in any case; whenever we pray, we are praying for the inevitable; but our prayers are nonetheless part of how God works according to his will.
What about prayers to the saints? Here, perhaps, our vocabulary gets in the way—prayers are for God alone, we say. That is a recent linguistic development in English, so let’s clarify. What is wrong with beseeching the saints to pray for us? This is different from beseeching the saints to do things for us, as Catholics often have—that seems to me to attribute to them a status that doesn’t make sense in a Biblical understanding of God and man. I should not pray, “Saint Peter, help me to excel in my studies”; but what about praying, “Saint Peter, please pray to God to help me in my studies”? This is the kind of prayer that we see in the Hail Mary (“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and in the hour of death.”) and in many Catholic “prayers to the saints.” It is this kind of prayer that I am no longer sure how to condemn. If I went to my father and said, “Dad, please pray to God for me, that he would help me in my studies,” would anyone complain? Hardly—we do this all the time. Since “the prayer of a righteous man availeth much,” I might want to go to a pastor, or someone of great spiritual maturity, and ask them to pray for me. Would anyone complain about this? Perhaps if I did this as a substitute for praying to God myself, there would be a problem, but if it was a supplement—“I’m really praying about this; could you pray for me too?” would anyone object? Certainly not. But what about if the pastor or righteous man was dead? Whoa…hold on a minute!
In principle, though, it’s no different, except that there is considerable doubt on the question of whether or not the dead can hear us. Even if the dead cannot hear us, it would seem that the worst that can be said about “prayers to the saints” is that they’re a waste of time, not that they’re blasphemous or idolatrous. And this, it seems, is important to establish in increasing understanding between Protestants and Catholics.
But can the dead hear us? Is there any contact between the dead in Christ and living saints? Certainly, at a popular level, we often tend to feel there must be, that we can be seen and heard in some way by loved ones that have passed on, and throughout the Christian age, literature has often encouraged us to believe that this is the case. But clear Biblical evidence seems lacking for the idea that I could successfully speak to a friend or relative who has passed on, and ask him to pray for me (though again, is there harm in trying?).
However, it seems that there is clear Biblical evidence (or at least, I have always understood in the theology I’ve been taught) that, when we gather for corporate worship, we are worshipping together with those who are dead in Christ; that they witness our worship and join together with us in praising God. It would seem, then, that when we gather together as a body for worship, that we can speak to the saints, can ask them to pray for us, at least on the basis of this line of reasoning. There may well be other objections, and I am eager to hear them, but there is certainly a strong prima facie case for much of Catholic practice on these issues. I still have a gut sense that something's wrong with this, but am not sure how to justify it. I look forward to some feedback.