Praying to Saints: Brief Exchange with Sincere Inquirer

Dominic

(5-27-08)

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As this was from a private letter, my correspondent’s exact words will be paraphrased, not cited. Her “words” will be in blue.

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What exactly is worship, according to Catholics? I know that you say you worship only God, but how is this defined? How do you distinguish between worshiping God and honoring saints? I’ve read a little about latria and dulia and hyperdulia, but to me it is almost like talking out of both sides of your mouth and doing something a Christian should know is wrong.

Worship is adoration: praise and thanksgiving to God our Creator and Lord and savior. No creature is like Him. No creature can be worshiped because that would be idolatry (putting a creature in the place of God). Catholics venerate the saints, which means giving them honor and praising the work that God has done through them, as vessels. Saints reflect the glory of God like the moon reflects the light of the sun. Praising a masterpiece of painting is not praise of oil and canvas, but of the painter who created it. Veneration of saints has a biblical basis.

How is it proper to pray both to God and to a saint? How do you define prayer?

If by “praying to a saint” you mean “asking the saint to grant a request by his/her own power,” then that is not what Catholics mean. What we mean by it is “asking a saint to intercede with God for a request. God answers in His power”. The principle is simple, and biblical. “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” (James 5:16; RSV). Saints are still alive in heaven. They care about those of us on earth. They observe us.

By the power of God and being out of time, they can hear our prayer requests, or requests for their intercession. All of this has biblical support. Prayer is not worship. I’m not worshiping God if I ask him to heal my wife. I’m not worshiping a saint if I ask him to ask God to heal my wife. It’s simply the care and concern that the Body of Christ has for other members. Death doesn’t cause that to come to an end, because God transcends the power of death and physical separation.

How do you differentiate between veneration of Mary and worship?

Because we are honoring her for being obedient to God and following His will. We are praising the artist (God) for the masterpiece (Mary). Everything Mary is, is because of God’s grace. She was obedient to God, though, and we are venerating her for that, too, because it is a wonderful testimony and example for us to follow. She chose to say yes to God (by God’s grace, but she still chose). And so we honor her for that. That’s not idolatry; it is acknowledgment of holiness and the work of God in His creatures.

Can we worship God and do the same to a saint and act as if it is okay just because we give them different descriptive terms?

No. I’ve explained the essential difference between the two things.

We Protestants pray to God only.

But you ask others to pray for you, and that is what Catholics are doing with the saints, and Mary above all, because she was the mother of our Lord and Savior Jesus. Protestants understand James 5:16, because they will ask perceived righteous persons to pray for them (like, say, Billy Graham). Again: we don’t think that the saints are the source of the answered prayer. They are aids for us to get to God and to have more of an expectation for an answered prayer, because we have enlisted a holy person to help us in our request (James 5:16).

For much more on all these issues, see my web page: Saints, Purgatory, and Penance.

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Photo credit: St Dominic in Prayer, by El Greco (1541-1614) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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