Praying with, or to, the saints?

santo subitoI have a question for the traditional Roman Catholics who are faithful GetReligion readers (and you know who you are).

As you probably know, I am a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy from evangelical Protestantism and, from time to time, I am struck by the subtle differences in how our ancient churches describe things. Thus, I tend to flinch when I hit mainstream media references, such as the following, about Catholics praying “to” the saints.

This is from Tracy Wilkinson’s Los Angeles Times report from Rome about the speedy progress of Pope John Paul II toward sainthood:

Today, on the second anniversary of his death, John Paul will take a significant step closer to sainthood. Church officials will announce the conclusion of a detailed investigation of the Polish prelate’s life, and the Vatican will begin evaluating the case of a French nun who said she was miraculously healed after praying to John Paul.

The nun, Marie Simon-Pierre, is expected to be among thousands of pilgrims who will attend elaborate ceremonies today, including a solemn Mass at St. Peter’s to mark John Paul’s passing. She says her Parkinson’s disease, the same illness that afflicted John Paul, disappeared two months after he died.

If a church committee agrees that the cure was a miracle attributed to intercession before God by John Paul, then the late pope is eligible to be beatified, the step preceding sainthood.

Here is my question: Does the simple phrase “after praying to John Paul” do justice to the Catholic teachings about prayer and the Communion of the Saints? Note the second reference in the story that seems close to the mark, the phrase that says the cure was “a miracle attributed to intercession before God by John Paul.”

Perhaps the phrase “praying to” the saints is so common that is accepted among Catholics, even though I have had Catholic priests and scholars tell me that it would be more accurate to say the persons offering the prayers are asking the saints to “pray with” them. All prayers are, of course, offered to God and Catholics believe in praying directly to God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — as much as other Christians. Here is a familiar wording in the Trisagion Prayers (this link is to an Eastern Catholic parish in communion with Rome):

Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.

As always on this site, please note that the big question in this post is not doctrinal (so don’t click that “comment” button just yet). It’s journalistic.

1878 1 photoI am asking if there is a better way for reporters to address this issue in public media, in part because the “pray to” wording may confuse many readers. Yes, I am also aware that many Catholics are either confused about the teachings of their own church on this matter. Here is a key reference in the church’s official catechism:

A cloud of witnesses

2683 The witnesses who have preceded us into the kingdom,41 especially those whom the Church recognizes as saints, share in the living tradition of prayer by the example of their lives, the transmission of their writings, and their prayer today. They contemplate God, praise him and constantly care for those whom they have left on earth. When they entered into the joy of their Master, they were “put in charge of many things.”42 Their intercession is their most exalted service to God’s plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world.

Thus, near the end of Wilkinson’s piece, we hear from the nun who appears to have been healed:

“My healing was the work of God through the intercession of John Paul,” she said at the news conference in the French city of Aix-en-Provence.

She spoke in a clear, if emotional, voice, and appeared to walk with ease.

So did the nun pray to John Paul for healing, or did she, in her prayers, ask John Paul to join her in her prayers to God for her own healing? It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. Is it too subtle for public media?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Martha

    Oh, ask us an easy one, why don’t you? ;-)

    I suppose that I never really thought that much about it – ‘praying to’ is, as you say, the familiar way that everyone puts it, so I wouldn’t have noticed its use especially.

    But it could lead to confusion, particularly for those who might tend to say “Yes, we knew all along those Papists pray to idols instead of God”.

    The problem would be that you can’t really expect a newspaper to put footnotes in along the lines of “Mr. Y attributes his cure to the fact that he prayed to St. Dymphna*
    (*by praying to, we of course mean ‘asked the intercession of St. Dymphna to unite her prayers with his in addressing them to God’ and do not mean that Mr. X invoked idols – see the “Cathechism of the Catholic Church”, Part Four, Section One, Chapter Two, Article Three, 2683-2684)” so, yeah, for the foreseeable future I think we’ll see ‘prayed to’ used in these instances.

    I really can’t off the top of my head think of a better way to put it: those who understand it and/or aren’t likely to be offended by it won’t be too fussy about “to/with” and those who think it’s all baloney or worse, idol worship and danger of damnation, won’t care whether it’s “to” or “with”, they’ll think it shouldn’t be going on at all.

    So, to turn the question back at you, how do the Orthodox phrase it – either familiarly or formally?

  • Eric Phillips

    If you address a saint while praying, aren’t you praying to that saint? By definition, I think, you have to be. The question of what you are asking for (i.e. for that saint to appeal to God on your behalf, or for that saint to heal you directly himself) is theologically important in its own right, but doesn’t have any bearing on the question “Are you praying to that saint?”

  • Bill Elwell

    Thank you for asking the question. The same wording was used on an NPR broadcast. I suspect that the remark made sense to Roman Catholics and that it went unnoticed by many, but I am certain that I was not the only non-Roman Catholic Christian to be startled. I look forward to the comments.

  • Heath White

    I agree with Eric #2: if you are requesting that a saint pray for you, what else are you doing besides praying?

    But secondly: it doesn’t follow from the fact that Catholic doctrine is clear on the with/to distinction, that your average Catholic parishioner is (though perhaps the nuns are–or perhaps not). In conversations with RCs on this point (I am an evangelical) I find that many have a kind of mental picture of a cosmic bureaucracy, where saints have delegated to them different kinds of prayer cases. Perhaps nobody would take that view in all theological seriousness, but it could certainly affect one’s prayer life.

  • Bruce

    Is part of the problem here only associating the word “pray” with God? Time was we could “pray to” our neighbor.

    “I pray thee cease thy counsel,
    Which falls into mine ears as profitless
    as water in a sieve.” (Shakespeare)

  • Mattk

    Many people have written letters “to” Santa Clause. No one has written a letter with Santa Clause. I think that “pray to” doesn’t sound like an implication that the saints actually exist. I think that “pray with” implies that they do, in fact exist and are praying. If a newspaper has no objections to suggesting the saints exist then “pray with” seems fine to me.

  • Fr Alvin Kimel

    This is a real interesting question, and I suspect that we are all stuck with the “pray to” language, particularly in the world of journalism. After all, if I ask a specific saint to intercede for me with the Almighty, am I not in some sense praying to them?

    I remember my initial shock when I first read, several years ago, the Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos:

    “O all-hymned Mother, worthy of all praise, who brought forth the Word, the Holiest of all Saints, as you receive this our offering, rescue us all from every calamity, and deliver from future torment those who cry with one voice.”

    “Unto you, O Theotokos, invincible Champion, your City, in thanksgiving ascribes the victory for the deliverance from sufferings. And having your might unassailable, free us from all dangers, so that we may cry unto you.”

    If the Orthodox could pray to Mary in such a direct fashion, who was I, then a lowly Episcopal priest, to complain about the Catholics and their invocation of the saints?

    All of this only makes sense within a catholic understanding of the communion of saints; but how does explain that in a newspaper article?

  • Michael Lewis, CSC

    Praying “to” the saints vs. praying for their intercession… The later is certainly correct. When you are praying, you are asking for divine intervention, which by definition is only possible by God. Asking for a saint’s intercession is no different than asking your friend at church to pray for your upcoming surgery — except, as “saints,” they are in heaven and therefore closer to “pass on the message,” so to speak. Indeed, all those in heaven are addressable, not just those canonized officially by the Church.

    Still, it’s not surprising such subtleties are often lost in the media, when they are often not understood in the pews, either. Yet, what if a paper slipped and said a Muslim was praying “to” Mohammed for a miraculous cure? My point is that someone would probably double-check that sort of thing with a expert in Islam. Why not with Catholicism? And why not worry about theses nuances in the first place, saying the difference doesn’t really matter?

    What was far worse: the many headlines I saw on the web this weekend proclaiming, “Nun claims late Pope cured her.” She never said that, and would be horrified that her words were twisted to deny true credit to God.

  • Eric Phillips

    Michael Lewis,

    The very fact that “pray to the saints” language exists and is approved in Roman Catholic circles proves that one need not be addressing God to be “praying.” Someone who prays to a saint for intercession may indeed be asking for _divine_ intervention, but he is clearly addressing the saint, imploring _the saint_, not God, to help him attain the desired result.

  • Deacon Peter

    Clarification (or, nit-picking if you will):

    There is some debate about the meaning of the phrase “through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us.” I think that the general accepted theological interpretation of this commonly used invocation is archpastoral.

    Take, for instance, the conclusion of the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy:

    At the end of the Liturgy, the Bishop says the Dismissal. After the commemoration of the Saints of the Day, the people chant, “Preserve, O Lord, our Master and Chief Priest…” The Bishop intones, “Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers…” and the Priest intones, “Through the prayers of our Holy Master…”

    1) The faithful “praise” the visiting hierarch.

    2) The hierarch, in return, recognizes the communal aspect of salvation, through the Church, and clarifies the dignity of his office (which is coequal with other bishops) by invoking the prayers of his fellow, living, bishops for the people.

    3) The parish priest recognizes the relevance of his office as a local pastor by requesting the prayers, specifically, of this diocesan bishop.

    This principle extends to the divine services when “read” without a priest or bishop present – the “priestly exclamations” are replaced with the same invocation of the bishop’s blessings (“Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers …”) since the laity cannot exclaim that which appropriate to the bishop only (or, by proxy, the priest who serves in his stead).

    The principle here is nonetheless the same. We entreat those faithful, living and dead, to pray with us to Christ our God.

    I hope this doesn’t confuse the discussion at hand.

  • Katie Q

    Eric Phillips,

    I could be wrong here–my memories of this doctrine only go back to a few catechism classes in a parish with a truly abominable catechism program–but I think even when requesting the prayers of saints, the mere ability for them to be cognizant of those prayers is considered an act of Jesus and the Holy Ghost (i.e. God). This is despite the fact that the requested miracle (should it occur) is also an act of God and not the saint, so it’s very much asking God for divine aid, and not so much the saint.

    As for the question asked in the posted, I’m okay with the “praying to” language. It’s how I explain my asking Anthony to find my glasses, and I think the very basic concept is reasonable there.

  • Eric Phillips


    Even if we say that the prayer, “John Paul, intercede with God on my behalf, that He might heal me” functions as a prayer to God for healing, we can’t deny that it is also a prayer to John Paul for intercession.

  • Werner Fee

    In the familiar sense, the “pray to” language is treated more like a shorthand or abbreviation. It is short for “pray to to intercede”. Even as you examine the comments from other readers here, you can see how wordy and cumbersome the concept can be.

    Outside of a Catholic-only audience, I think it’s better to use the full wording to more accurately describe the theology behind it.

  • Feddie
  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Good issue and a practical conundrum:
    I think the fairest way for the media to handle cases like this is to- inside or outside quotation marks– use the exact same words the person in the story is using. I know reporters like to vary words having the same-or almost the same- meaning to make the story more interesting or less repetitive but sometimes that becomes the cause of some of the worst inaccuracies or misunderstandings in stories.
    However, since I have so often seen–as a priority– legal or scientific words explained in even short news stories-I think the media should give priority to providing an explanation of “technical” words like “intercession” as used by Catholics in situations such as this. I think this is more important to understanding than whether the word “with” or “to” is used.

  • Petellius

    Mr. Phillips:

    Two thoughts/questions:

    1) By that logic, saying “mom, I’m really sick, please say a prayer for me,” would count as praying to one’s mother for intercession. If this is how we are going to define what counts as “praying to” someone, I don’t see what the big deal is. It is only problematic if we insist on understanding “pray” as necessarily involving worship (which it doesn’t) rather than as meaning simply “to ask” (cf. Bruce’s comment above).

    2) In light of the topic at hand (i.e., I am not trying to start a discussion about “merits”), what would you make of a prayer phrased like this:

    “May the prayers of the holy Abbot Benedict commend us to Thee, we beseech Thee, O Lord, that what we cannot obtain by our own merits, we may obtain through his patronage. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God forever and ever. Amen.”

    This is the much more common way to phrase liturgical prayers in commemoration of the saints in the RCC. Is this equally problematic? It’s addressed to God, after all, and so can in no way be construed as a “prayer to” St. Benedict, but it still mentions intercession.

    Regarding the issue of journalism, it is difficult. Admittedly, Catholics speak of “praying to” a saint as a shorthand for a much more complicated theological idea that is not so easy to phrase succintly. (And, admittedly, some have a very muddled idea of what the shorthand implies – this, though, is a question of catechesis, not of doctrine). Since the issue is so contentious these days, I suppose the best way to achieve clarity in reporting on such instances would be to use a longer phrasing, such as “asking for the intercession of”, rather than “praying to.” It’s a little awkward, and a little technical (would non-religious people immediately pick up on the implications?), but at least it’s more accurate.

  • Mike Petrik

    Catholics pray for four reasons: adoration, penance, thanks, and petition. The latter two present appropriate, and obviously related, opportunities to approach saints. Of course, saints have no power to grant petitions, but can intercede with the One who does. The confusion is more semantics than anything else. The word “prayer” is commonly defined as “a fervent request or petition, especially to God.” In the legal world, it is customary in some common law jurisdictions to use the word “pray” in pleadings, and these pleadings are most definitely not directed to God. But given that those petitions which are directed to God are virtually always described as prayers, the opportunity for confusion is pretty obvious. Accordingly, while there is nothing contra-Catholic about the phrase “praying to John Paul,” such phraseology might fairly be considered imprudent given the potential for confusion.

  • Dan

    On a separate but related topic, I was impressed with the near absence of snarkiness in the NYT and LAT articles. (The NYT article did put “Christian martyrs” in quotes though.)

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    I’m Lutheran but have read several Roman Catholic catechisms (bearing the papal imprimatur, etc., marking the books as “kosher”). They do spell out that the devotee is not praying to the saints, per se, but asking for the saint to intervene on their behalf. What’s the difference? Terminology I guess. Even Will Durant noticed that while Rome made such distinctions, the average lay person hasn’t. Read the “Thank You’s” in the local paper purchased to give thanks to a saint for answered prayers.

    Many people also assume that Lutherans are against all the saint imprecations. Actually, the Lutheran Confessions acknowledge that the saints may in fact intervene on our behalf. But to ask the saint to do so is to ignore the clear words of Scripture that “there is one mediator between God and man–Christ Jesus.”

    Alas this is one of those areas where even the faithful aren’t really sure. It might be a stretch to expect the media to nail this concept. They would have better success nailing Jell-O to the wall.

  • John Sheridan

    What exactly is the problem with this usage, pray tell? Pun intended. “Pray” does not mean worship; it means to ask repsectfully–or beg. It derives from the French “prier” which means ask, beg, pray. It is cognate with Italian “pregare,” also meaning beg or pray.

    Lawyers often address prayers to the court in their motions and complaints; it does not mean that they are treating the court as an idol.

    In current usage, “pray” has become obsolete except in a sacred context–probably because modern life is very egalitarian. It is often used in Shakespeare’s plays in a non-religious context, however.

    I imagine this discussion would not even take place in any language beside English.

  • Thomas

    Bruce (comment #5) has noted something important. Confusion arises sometimes because contemporary languages change relatively rapidly but Catholic doctrines don’t (this is part of why “dead” languages like Latin are so useful to the Church).

    As in Bruce’s example the word “pray” used to be just an ordinary word for asking or entreating that could be used to ask something of anyone. It comes from a Latin word that looks similar and means the same thing. Latin, so far as I know, does not have a special word that means to beg or entreat God specifically – you have to say “God” or otherwise make it clear from context. Because Catholics have a long tradition, they tend to use the word the older, more broad way.

    However, for many people, the sense of the English word “pray” has narrowed to mean only “pray to God.” How an individual Catholic will phrase the answer to this will depend on what he is used to using the word “pray” to mean and what he thinks you are used to using it to mean – because no Catholic wants to be misunderstood as saying that the saints are the same as God or gods.

    You will see a similar thing if you look up the history of the word “worship,” which English-speaking Catholics gradually stopped using for the honor due to the saints in order to avoid confusion as other English-speakers narrowed their usage of the word to mean exclusively the honor due only to God.

    It’s easy when you’re addressing an audience that you know has basically the same “mental dictionary” as you do – it must be very challenging to be a newswriter and know that you’re being read by people with widely varying assumptions!

  • Fr Martin Fox

    For journalistic purposes–i.e., to be clear, accurate and brief–I would say…

    Catholics pray to, with and through the saints. You can’t understand this without the idea of “communion”–we’re all together in Christ. The separation of death seems more real to us; but union in Christ conquers even death itself. So a saint really does have power, only its the power of Christ. St. Paul said that of us on earth (“it is no longer I that lives, but Christ lives in me,” for example); how can it be less true of believers in heaven?

  • chris

    With all due respect, this kind of concern over nitpicking form is what has gotten Catholics to look very small in their faith to others. This is how we resorted to over sensitivity and adopting so many protestant forms so to hopefully win more acceptance. Well, if people believe that humans so holy as to witness for their Faith to the point of death and who were favored by God with miracles both during their lives and afterwards are not worthy in themselves to speak to for their blessed influence, then they need the dictionary or wickepedia rather than the scriptures to discover just what “idol” means. And we should not get so hung up on form and become so defensive that we suffer anxiety over petty misunderstandings which have melded into the common expression of faith, and end up ignoring the very Spirit Who will in the end prove to others just where the beef is through the results of more miracles! As far as the media goes, we’ve got a lot more to worry about in the area of pornography, hypocrisy, culture of death to fight against. This other minor stuff can be a real tool of evil to distract us from the real stuff and just look silly. If people don’t want to learn about our Faith due to disagreement with those biggies, they’ll never desire to learn about the more nuanced vocabulary!

  • Stephen M. Collins

    Fr. Fox hits the nail on the head.

    Does anyone recall Bill Clinton’s trying to define the word “is”? So we’re now trying to define the word “to”. Have you ever noticed that, in the Oxford English Dictionary, the shorter the word the more and longer the entries? So it is with “to”, and journalists with college degrees should know this even from high school. But, now that they’re “journalists”, that’s not their job!

    Also recall the Gospel lesson of Jesus and his Mother at the wedding at Cana. They had no more wine. Mary knew of the need. Mary mentioned it to Jesus. Even though Jesus replied to her that it wasn’t yet his time, he fixed the situation.

    ‘Nough said.

  • Eric

    Three distinctions:

    1. The word prayer when talking about conversation with God can be of various types: intercessory, thanksgiving, praise and union (contemplation).

    2. The word prayer when associated with the saints (“pray to St. So-and-so”) is, as others have pointed out, equivalent with the archaic English usage of the word, that is, “ask.” So we may ask the saints to intercede for us in the same way I may ask living friends to pray for me. This is in no way similar to praying to God.

    3. We also pray “with the saints” in the context of liturgy, which is an act of the entire Church, living and dead. We can also “pray with” the saints when we use their words. For example, if I initiate a conversation with God using the Prayer of St. Francis, I can be said to be praying with Francis to God.

    Of course, all this is probably lost on journalists. Virtually every article or media segment on Roman Catholicism has at least some slight error in it, and it’s not likely the media can be persuaded to make these distinctions in reference to prayer, which they generally understand only in the intercessory aspect.

  • Rick

    All Catholic prayer is Trinitarian in nature: To the Father, In the Son, Through the Spirit, whether a person is dead or alive. As all those who in heaven and earth are held in existence by God, any intercession on behalf of John Paul comes via God’s grace as does any prayer on earth. It is God who grants the miracle on behalf of John Paul II.

  • John Henry

    As you suggest, “praying to” is not quite theologically correct. The second assertion (of the nun) is more correct. We Catholics basically ask the saints to intercede for us, to pray for us to God the Father through our Lord Jesus Christ. Of course, in asking that saint to pray for us, we are also, in a sense, “praying to” that saint (i.e., speaking to them). And this being so, I think orthodox Catholics quite often use the “praying to” phraseology as a common shortcut. It’s less of a mouthful than the other option. I also think that Protestant converts (such as me) are much more likely to get on-edge about the use of that shortcut because of our past associations of it with “idolatry”.

    So for the media, it’s probably best to be precise and avoid the shortcut, if only because their readership is comprised of a more diverse group than cradle Catholics. Even if the shortcut phraseology isn’t necessarily wrong (properly understood).

  • Eric Phillips

    There is a significant difference between asking St. Augustine or the late Pope to intercede on my behalf with God, and asking my wife or buddy to do it: when I make the first request, I have no empirical evidence–no reason apart from reasons of faith–to believe that I am communicating with anyone. When I make the second request, I do so in two-way empirically-verifiable conversation. I do not need _faith_ to be certain that my request has been heard.

    This is the difference between “pray” and “request” (or “plead”) in contemporary English. The word “pray” does _not_ apply exclusively to God, but it _does_ apply exclusively to religious (or at least mystical, empirically non-verifiable) addresses.

  • Jerry

    In addition to the older senses of the word “pray” in English, the Latin word “orare” can be rendered “to beg” or “to pray”, if I recall correctly.

  • Eric Phillips


    You asked me:

    “May the prayers of the holy Abbot Benedict commend us to Thee, we beseech Thee, O Lord, that what we cannot obtain by our own merits, we may obtain through his patronage. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God forever and ever. Amen.”

    This is the much more common way to phrase liturgical prayers in commemoration of the saints in the RCC. Is this equally problematic?

    I haven’t called anything “problematic.” That’s beyond the scope of this discussion. I’m just pointing out that RCs do, literally, pray TO saints. Not in this prayer you quote for us, though. St. Benedict is not being addressed, so no one is praying to him.

  • Chris-2-4

    I’d day the focus us on the wrong word. Instead of focusing on the “to” or “with” they should focus on the meaning of “pray” which essentially means “ask” and the object of that “asking” or “prayer” is the saint. So we are praying TO the saints.

    Additionally, what we are fully doing is not praying WITH the saints, but praying TO the saints inviting them to pray WITH us.

  • Shaun G

    Okay, some shorthand:

    “Pray to” Meaning #1: To address someone in heaven (or purgatory). Thus, you can “pray to” God, or you can “pray to” a saint and ask for his/her intercession.

    “Pray to” Meaning #2: Implies worship; thus, it’s reserved for God alone.

    As a copy editor, I would say that unless you’re writing for the Catholic press, the “pray to” phrasing is going to be ambiguous — in other words, there are going to be a bunch of readers who will infer Meaning #2 when what is meant is Meaning #1.

    On the other hand, I don’t think the general reader is likely to infer Meaning #2 from a phrase like “ask St. So-and-So to pray for him/her.”

    So … all other things being equal, I’d say to go with the non-ambiguous phrasing.

    But are all other things equal?

    Yes, I’d say. The non-ambiguous phrasing isn’t very bulky, so in all but headlines, it shouldn’t be an issue. And there is nothing significant about the “pray to” phrasing that gets lost in the substitution.

  • Sr. Lorraine

    I recall in a class once a very sound teacher saying that Catholics have always used the terminology of praying “to” the saints, especially in reference to Mary. But he said there’s something about that terminology that Protestants find very hard to accept. Without getting into all the technicalities of it, I think the real issue revolves around the nature of the Communion of Saints and how we understand that, and the nature of intercession. At any rate, the vocabulary of praying to Mary and the saints is so much a part of Catholic life that to abandon it would be to lose something.

  • Dave

    John L. Hoh, Jr.

    But to ask the saint to do so is to ignore the clear words of Scripture that “there is one mediator between God and man—Christ Jesus.”

    Nope. That objection would apply equally to asking my living friends to pray for me. Restricting it to the saints in heaven is an arbitrary distinction you have made that does not follow logically.

  • Michael Lewis, CSC

    I think Shaun hits the nail on the head. All this discussion of semantics should be focused on what will be the least ambiguous to readers, while still respecting the nuanced language necessary to convey the correct theological idea.

    Bottom line: Too many readers have too many different concepts of what the words “pray to St. So-and-So” mean. Thus, we should be using less nebulous phrasing like “pray for the intercession of St. Mungo” or “through the intercession of St. Patrick” and avoid the more succint but less specific “she prayed with St. Joseph,” or “St. Lucy cured her blindness,” etc.

    Then again, perhaps every story should have a graph explaining the differences between devotion, veneration, and worship. (For matters of clarity and getting the story right, is that such a bad thing?)

  • Dorian Speed

    Why not substitute “asking for the prayers of?” i.e., “She was miraculously healed after asking for the prayers of John Paul II?”

    Hmmm…although maybe that sounds like she’s asking God to tell John Paul II to pray for her, which comes across as inefficient.

    Really, though, I don’t think that those who seize upon “pray to” as evidence of idol worship are going to be convinced otherwise by the substitution of other terms, as this would just lead to further questions – “why ask for that particular person’s prayers instead of going right to God?” “How does she know it’s because of John Paul II’s prayers and not just because God granted her request, regardless? “Are you saying that this miracle is God’s memo to us: John Paul II is definitely in Heaven?” That kind of thing.

  • Ken

    Intercession would be praying to the Saint, but knowing that they will instantly turn to God to answer the prayer. It is like praying “through” a Saint. Through the merits of Christ always.

  • jarin schiavolin

    I don’t see any problem with the language of “praying to saints.” The real conflict is prior, on a philosophical level–Catholics have a doctrine of secondary causes; Protestants and most moderns do not. Implicit in “praying to saints,” in the Roman Catholic mind, is that the saints are secondary causes that exist by, in, and for the First Cause of everything [i.e. God]. They believe this even if they can’t put it in metaphysical terms.

    When I pray to a saint, I am indeed asking for their intercession, but there is also (often) an acknowledgement that the particular saint has been granted, through grace, to dispense particular graces. Based on secondary causality, a Catholic can say that John Paul II really healed me when I prayed to him, and yet understand that it is God working through JPII as an instrument; and further, that JPII cannot act autonomously to heal.

    I think that the appreciation for the instrumental character of the saints (and each of us) can be lost if the emphasis is placed too much on intercession. But I’m open to other thoughts.

  • Henry Dieterich

    If I were to ask Mr. Hoh to pray for me for some intention, and the Lord granted me what we were praying for, might I not reasonably thank him for his help? If you grant a Catholic or Orthodox understanding of the Church, including the notion that the saints who have gone before us are still a part of the same Body with us, then anyone who believes in intercessory prayer (as I believe Lutherans do) would have to admit that Catholic practice is justified. One would even, after some initial discomfort, perhaps, have to admit that the radical language of the Akathist hymn is justified. The difference between me (or another Catholic or Orthodox) and Mr. Hoh in this respect is a fundamental disagreement, going back to the time of Luther if not before, about the nature of the Church.

  • Mike Petrik

    As I and many others have tried to say before, this really isn’t that hard. The word “pray” means “to request or petition fervently,” even if its most common contemporary usage is reserved to requests directed to God. We ARE praying to saints insomuch as we are fervently petitioning them to intercede with God on our behalf. In other words, a Catholic’s “prayer” to a saint is that he will pray to God on our behalf. The fact that most practical modern “usage” (outside legal and obviously Catholic circles) more or less restricts the term to petitions directed toward God, creates the confusion — which I’m sure extends to many contemporary Catholics as well.

  • Michel

    As much as I sympathize with my fellow Roman Catholics on this one, I think we need to admit we have a problem here. The problem is not with the doctrines of the church regarding pleading for intecession.

    No, the problem is with some of the things some Catholics do believe. Let’s be honest there are Catholics out there who “pray to” saints in exactly the sense that protestant critics claim they do. And they are sometimes the most devoted, committed members of the congregation.

    In every large city there is an older church frequented by groups that a particular devotion, usually but not always to Mary. Slip into my church in the afternoon of any weekday and you will see them praying the rosary fervently in the hour or so before the afternoon mass. Now, if some enterprising reporter were to walk in, see these obviously devout Catholics meeting in the church with the approval of the parish priest, he or she might think, well, these people are clearly “real” Catholics and wander up and ask them to explain their beliefs.

    And some of the things that reporter would likely hear would be eye opening.


  • Ryan Overbey

    I think Deacon Bresnahan is absolutely correct– with tricky situations like this direct quotes are better.

    Consulting official church documents and correct theology is useful, but those who take too much stock in such things should really read Robert Orsi’s books, which document what he calls the “theology of the streets”– the language and practices of American Catholics who do all sorts of things that would make the theologians and liturgists quite horrified.

    In Between Heaven and Earth, Orsi recounts a dinner he had with a liturgist discussing his research on St. Jude. As he described women’s devotion to St. Jude, which included “taking him into their beds, kissing him, punishing him”, and so on, Orsi writes that the liturgist became extremely agitated, got up and said “You are trying to bring back everything we have worked so hard to do away with.”

    Quoting the catechism in this context seems, well, unfair to the religion as actually lived by Catholics.

    I think the journalist should not take a position on this– the possibility of tension between the theologians and liturgists and the rest of the faithful is very real, and faithful reportage (with direct quotes) and anthropological work is really the fairest option.

  • Charles R. Williams

    “So did the nun pray to John Paul for healing, or did she, in her prayers, ask John Paul to join her in her prayers to God for her own healing?”

    The simple answer is yes. She prayed to the saint asking him to pray for her to God so that she might receive what she is hoping God will grant her.

    If I pray, “St. Joseph, get me a job so I can support my family,” then I am asking him to obtain a favor for me from God – something which I presumably am also praying for directly. How else could the Guardian of the Universal Church accomplish anything except through prayer? As the Bible says, St. Joseph is a just man and as the Bible also says, the prayer of a just man availeth much.

  • Martha

    Zipping in quickly here again: it’s not just a matter of praying ‘to’ versus praying ‘with’; it’s also praying ‘through’.

    Let us say that God dispenses His graces through the intercessions of His saints – sort of like the way a king (or a President, if monarchy sets your teeth on edge) appoints ministers to administer various functions for him. The vizier/prime minister/secretary of watermelons and pumpkins is the go-to guy when you want to get your licence to plant an extra acre of melons, but he’s not doing it off his own bat; in the next cabinet reshuffle, he could be out on his ear and a new minister for watermelons appointed. It’s the authority that’s delegated by virtue of the position.

    Which is probably a really bad explanation, since the saints aren’t going to be turfed out of the sphere of blessedness nor am I at all saying that God cannot do it all, much less needs help, and the only excuse I have is all the parables saying “the kingdom of Heaven is like” – a mustard seed, a woman cleaning her house, a merchant trading, a master who gave his servants talents to invest, the minister of a king who owed what he could not pay, an unjust judge called to account…

    But rather God is so full and overflowing that we cannot exhaust His bounty and goodness; He permits those He loves to share in it; we are sons now, not slaves, and we have the share of a son in our Father’s work. God delights in us and, as the waters of a fountain cascade over the basins in level upon level, so the grace of God comes down/through the saints to us, not for any lack in God nor for any inattention or disinterest in our petty concerns, but by pure graciousness permitting the company of saints to serve Him in this way.

    Did God “need” an angel to proclaim His messages? Does God “need” St. Anthony to find lost objects, St. Dymphna to help those mentally ill, St. Jude to accomplish things despaired of? No more than any father or mother “needs” his or her little child to ‘help’ in the kitchen or the shed; but what parent would chase away their child and tell them “I don’t need your help and besides, you know I’m the one who’ll end up doing it all by myself anyway”?

    I’ll just finish up by saying that in Catholic theology the saints are not dead or remote or finished with us or separate; we are all, on earth, in purgatory, or in heaven, part of the Mystical Body of Christ, one church, the Communion of Saints. They have put away earthly concerns but that does not mean they do not care any longer what happens to the Body, which is why they can be asked to intercede for us (as you would ask someone wiser or more talented to help you), and their example heartens us here on earth and helps us be drawn up to God. If Saint X was a drunken lout, but was given the grace of conversion, or Saint Y was a spiteful shrew, but she repented, then there is hope for me and moreover, I can see that God has done such for them and I can be confident He will do as much for me.

    Yes – that’s adequately incoherent, I think :-)

  • MMajor Fan

    When one prays to a saint who has departed life and is in the constant presence of the Lord, one is praying to the Lord, not the saint. The person who is praying is choosing, one might almost say, the “voice” to use, and the “way” of the saint to emulate. A person who prays to one saint is taking on a spiritual posture that was modeled by the saint in his or her original conversations and their own prayers with God. If God is the harp, each saint may be thought of as one string of the harp. All prayers go to the Lord, and all graces come from the Lord. However, it is very efficacious for the person who is praying to choose a “voice” (an intercessor) that is most resonant to their individual situation. I think the Protestants and others who are uncomfortable with praying “to” a saint confuse praying to a saint with worship, and potentially side stepping God. They should be reassured that all prayers offered by Catholics go to God directly, and all graces flow from God directly, and that one’s choice of a saint for prayer in certain situations is a way to emulate the saint’s model for grace and to use a voice that most opens the individual’s heart to effective and full prayer.

    Most non Catholics are very comfortable with the concept of music, both on earth and in heavenly praise. You can explain to them that praying to a saint is like the personal selection of a particular song represented by that saint, with which to facilitate their communication with God. If a struggling father prays to St Joseph, one can almost imagine the type of song and grace one is offering for and to God through the example of St Joseph. If someone with an “impossible” cause prays to St Jude, one can imagine that this is a different tone of prayer voice, and a different emulation of virtue and grace that the petitioner is utilizing. If someone with an illness prays to a more contemporary saint or blessed figure, such as Pope John Paul II or Padre Pio, this is also best described as a personal selection of prayer/song tone and reaching for emulation of the saint’s virtues, offered directly to God, and responded to directly by God. This is the best and easiest understanding of prayer intercession.

  • Gregg the obscure

    Catholic liturgy is filled with examples of those on this side of death seeking to magnify their voice in prayer by joining it to the prayer of the saints. For example, see the Preface where “with all the choirs of angels in heaven we proclaim your glory and join in their unending hymn of praise”. Also in the Hail Mary we ask her to “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death”.

    More direct, though, is the third-century Sub Tuum Praesidium, in which we ask the Blessed Virgin “Do not despise our petitions in our necessity, but protect us from dangers always”. Then again, such protection would be wrought by her prayers to her Son. Being the Good Son, He’s quite inclined to honor her requests.

  • SLowboy

    Does the phrase, “pray to” do justice to Catholic Theology?

    Yes, The people who hate the idea of Saints in Heaven intervening on our parts don’t care what words we use, they will object regardless.

    We know what we mean. The relationship is clear. I “pray to” JPII just as I “speak to” my wife. Only if the word “pray” is changed to mean only, “adressing God” is the wording unclear.

  • lar

    As is the case in a lot of questions about the Catholic Faith, it is not either/or, it is both/and. We pray “to” the saints and “with” the saints without distinction.

    That some will be scandalized by this is a given. And that journalists will continue to find it easier to be sloppy than to be precise is also a given.

  • tmatt

    See how hard it is to focus on the JOURNALISM in this case and not the mysteries of the theology.

    About half of you are saying, “To heck with commn people understanding, the doctrine is clear to those who know Catholic doctrine.”

    This ignores my question.

    Others say there is no way to avoid confusion because some people do not want to understand, period. I agree, but that avoids the question.

    What is the word that offers ordinary newspaper readers their best chance to understand what is actually being said? That’s the question.

    I am asking a question for reporters who care about being as accurate as we can be, while writing for laypeople (in a sinful, fallen, imperfect world).

  • tmatt
  • Maureen

    One of the penitential rite prayers in the Mass ends with these words:

    “And I ask blessed Mary, all the angels and saints,
    and you, my brothers and sisters,
    to pray for me to the Lord our God.”

    None of these false distinctions and prejudices about who can talk to who, or ask their prayers! :)

  • Bret

    I don’t think the main thing that would create doctrinal confusion for Protestants is the distinction between primary and secondary causes or disbelief that deceased believers can intercede before God. My impression is that, to most Protestants, the idea of praying to/through saints conjures an image of a celestial bureaucracy, or maybe a heavenly point system, where prayers are more or less effective depending on who you get to pray for you. And not being on board with the RCC’s authority to do things like ratify sainthood or specifically attribute a miracle “to intercession before God by John Paul” doesn’t help.

    I think a more common Protestant objection would be more rooted in questions like these: Agreed that all intercession is “to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit,” why would any saint’s prayer carry more weight than anyone else’s? Is it insufficient to have your local body of believers pray? Seeing the prayer answered, why specifically attribute the response to a saint’s prayers instead of anyone else’s? Why place such confidence in a practice which is not directly addressed in scripture (i.e. asking a specific deceased believer for intercession)?

    But as far as the question of conveying nuance goes, this is neither here nor there. I think the sheer number of responses to this post helps answer that question. There is subtlety to this belief that is commonly misunderstood, in part or in whole, and sometimes even by adherents. Especially in a paper with a broad audience like the LAT, nuance is needed.

    Maybe the answer to this question would help answer tmatt’s question: Is it more important to reflect the particular believer’s understanding of a doctrine, or the understanding of the body of believers they belong to? That might at least give you a starting point for what additional information would be useful.

  • Martha

    “Agreed that all intercession is “to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit,” why would any saint’s prayer carry more weight than anyone else’s? Is it insufficient to have your local body of believers pray?”

    Those who stand in the presence of God, who experience Him in a way we on earth do not yet experience Him; they act as a kind of lens, concentrating for us on earth our prayers before God, adding their merits, adding their prayer to ours. It’s hard to explain; it’s a kind of family relationship, where the saints are like older siblings teaching the younger ones (us) “This is what Daddy taught me; this is the way you do it”.
    Rev. 7: 9- 16
    “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
    10And they cried out in a loud voice:
    “Salvation belongs to our God,
    who sits on the throne,
    and to the Lamb.”
    11All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God,
    Praise and glory
    and wisdom and thanks and honor
    and power and strength
    be to our God for ever and ever.
    13Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”

    14I answered, “Sir, you know.”

    And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
    “they are before the throne of God
    and serve him day and night in his temple;
    and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.
    16Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
    The sun will not beat upon them,
    nor any scorching heat.
    17For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd;
    he will lead them to springs of living water.
    And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

  • tmatt


    “And I ask blessed Mary, all the angels and saints,
    and you, my brothers and sisters,
    to pray for me to the Lord our God.”

    … to pray for me TO THE Lord our God…

    I actually think that’s the best example of the actual doctrine that anyone has posted all day.

  • tioedong

    The problem might be the evolution of the word “PRAY”.
    If you read Shakespear or old novels, people would ask favors by saying Pray tell me, or I pray thee…it is a formal way to say: pretty please could you do this?

    So yes, we pray to saints. We ask(pray) them to pray for us, just like we ask (pray) family and friends to pray for us.

    We do not worship the saints. In Catholicism worship is the mass, which is the Last supper and the crucifixion/atonement of Christ.

    But prayers and popular devotions to saints is not “worship”, but is devotion or piety, again piety in the ancient meaning. Piety unites us with family, friends and community.

    American individualism stresses a stark religion where an individual goes to God, but most cultures don’t see people as isolated individuals but as members of families and communities. And going to God is not individual enlightenment but a religion of all of life. Communal celebrations are one expression of community, and praying to saints is another expression of a community that includes our beloved dead and our brother and sisters in heaven.

    The saints are connected with us, because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and will pray for us. Since they are “just men” (see James) they will be listened to more than those of us who are sinners.

    The biblical justification is that Mary got the wine for the wedding feast by asking. You could argue that saints are not needed, but for some reason Jesus listened to his mother to perform his first miracle, so argue with him about it.;-)

    Sometimes this folk piety goes overboard, but the Catholics figure if it brings people closer to God, not to condemn it, for fear of throwing out the wheat with the weeds.

  • Irish Joe

    When began College, a Protestant friend asked me why Catholics pray to the saints and how that wasn’t idolatry. It was a good question and one I had not considered so I went to my priest and asked him. He explained that if he were going through a difficult time or his faith were being tested he might ask me to pray for him. What Catholics are doing when we “pray to saints” is asking the saints to pray for us to God. This came about during a time when Catholics felt that they were too sinful to ask things of God directly. They thought He wouldn’t listen to them because they were sinners. A saint (in the Catholic definition) is a human being who has gone through life as we have (including sinning now and then) and is now with God in heaven. Having been a sinner him or herself this saint would not be too disgusted to listen to us and relay our requests to God. Now, most of us understand that Jesus’ death paid the price for all of our sins and we CAN pray directly to God. He’s not too grossed out by us to listen. Of course God Himself hears prayers to saints so praying to saints is unnecessary. However, some Catholics still hold to the thinking that we need to go through heavenly intercessors rather than the direct approach. That helped me understand the practice, and I hope it helps you, too.

  • Dale


    I’ll agree with you that American reporters who cover Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox devotionals need to explain the significance of the fellowship of the saints and petitional prayers. Like it or not, the American establishment was historically English Protestant, and imported the negative preconceptions of Roman Catholicism of the English Reformation, including the libel of idolatry. It’s too common a misconception among Americans for reporters to ignore when covering people talking about prayers “to” saints. A similar clarification might be necessary in a historically Roman Catholic country to explain what Protestants mean when they say “the Church”.

  • chris

    I don’t know, but after reading all of the “toing” and froing here I am wondering if Catholics themselves aren’t a bit confused over the reality of the Communion of Saints. Look, the very fact that the saints are now in God’s Presence MEANS that they are living IN THE WILL OF GOD. They cannot be separate, work autonomously as some have inferred or worry that such a differentiation might be conveyed. Whether one receives an answer to his/her prayers to a specific blessed now or has to wait (in God’s time) is completely dependent on God’s will which cannot be different from the saint’s. It almost sounds like many doubt the very promises of scripture that we become inheritors of God’s traits; become “divinized” as several of the saints already chosen to live in God’s will during this life as the expression of how the New Era will be – like Faustina, Elizabeth of the Trinity or Dina Belanger referred to what they were undergoing. To believe that a saint can act any other way, once in holy Union is teaching the exact wrong idea to those who are trying to understand just what we are actually doing when we speak to a favored one now in heaven with God and who does not move outside of Him.

  • tmatt

    Folks, folks, folks…. I understand the doctrine. Heck, I believe it.

    But there are going to be lots of St. JP II stories written in the next few years. The issue is how to best express the doctrine in a few well-chosen words IN PUBLIC MEDIA so that the maximum number of people will understand what it means or, at the very least, not get a skewed version of the doctrine.

    Think journalism.

  • Steve

    If anyone is interested, there was a little book on the subject written by 19th century American intellectual and Catholic convert Orestes Brownson called Saint Worship and the Worship of Mary. (Brownson has always been the most overlooked 19th c. intellectual, so look him up, even if you don’t read the book.) He was a fiery character, loved confrontation, and he knew that his title would stir things up.

    But the book really does do a good job of explaining the subject to someone outside of the Roman Catholic Church. It’s quite short, and it’s an easy–and very interesting–read. While a seminary student, I was a teaching assistant in a college history department, and we had our students read the book while we taught a senior seminar on Brownson. I’ve read the book a few times, and I’ve used it to explain the topic to my other evangelical brethren.

  • Mac in Alberta

    As a practising Catholic and as a journalist, I think the phrase “praying to” a saint is accurate and can stand. Eric Phillips in comment No. 2 noted that if you address a saint while praying, you are by definition praying to the saint.
    I just opened a booklet of prayers and devotions to St. Joseph. Sure enough, the prayers are grammatically addressed to St. Joseph, i.e. ” . . . I ask you to help me be a good husband to my wife . . . . Saint Joseph, pray for me.” (Korn, Br. Daniel, C.Ss.R., Saint Joseph Prayers and Devotions, Liguori Publications, Liguori, Mo., 2002, p. 14).
    That you conclude by asking the saint to pray for you is a given to Catholics, and part of set prayers to saints. Without checking all the devotional books in the house, I think such prayers either end with a request to the saint to pray for you, or a request to Jesus to answer your prayers through the intercession of the saint.
    I keep thinking that this question is not about the word “pray” but the word “worship.” There is a problem with understanding the Protestant vs. Catholic (and I think Orthodox) understanding of the different degrees of honour paid to God, Our Lady and the saints.
    Pax et bonum
    Mac in Alberta

  • Jerry

    I’m reminded of a similar question that comes up in Hinduism. It has be worded as “The Guru and Govind, God, are present before me, to whom shall I bow down first? Glory to the Guru since he showed me Govind.”

  • Agnieszka Tennant

    Since Poland–the nation where I grew up as a devout Roman Catholic–is likely the country with the most prayers addressing JPII per household, let me offer a perspective from the Polish pew, setting sophisticated interpretations of Roman Catholic theology and journalism aside.

    For the first twenty years of my life, during which I attended a Catholic church on average twice a week and marched in various pilgrimages, I only prayed *to* the saints and heard other Polish Roman Catholics refer to praying *to* the saints in conversations. To speak of praying *with* the saints would have then sounded irreverent. The notion of praying *to* the saints existed in the context of attributing supernatural powers to these saints. (They were doing the work for which God did not have the time.) When I realized that this arguably flawed understanding of the role of the saints detracted my attention from God, I became disillusioned with the Catholic Church *as I knew it then* and became a Protestant.

    As for the late pope, many Poles prayed to him even before his death. This “early start” may just be what is contributing to JPII’s accelerated sanctification process. ;-)

  • a lone striker

    As we enter into the life of the Trinty, that is to say the grace of God, be become like unto Christ. A saint, in other words. To harp on the distinctinction that that the graces of the saints are Divine, while very true, is therefore a meaningless redundancy. Just as praying in, praying to and praying with Christ is. Or praying in, praying to, and praying with the Holy Spirit is.

    That’s what it means to be in spiritual Communion. We participate in the graces, or energies of God, who will move mountains at our behest. When we request prayers from, and pray with one another, that’s what we are doing. Just as when we – we, by God’s grace – heal one another (you know, like Benny Hind? Or Pat Robertson? I see them do it on TV all the time..) Same thing. God’s grace thru us, just like Peter’s shadow heals in Acts 5 or touching Paul’s handkerchief does in Acts 19. “Ask” for Pat’s intercession, there’s apparently a pretty good chance you’ll get healed. Check it out on the 700 Club.

    Last, check out the apparition of Moses & Elijah at the Transfiguration (Matt 17:1-13.) It never ever fails to astonish me how people who claim to profess sola scriptura get spooky over the Communion of Saints (or claim that the Saints are unable to hear prayers) when the Biblical data is right in front of their noses.

    All the scholastic parsing of the meaning of prepositions and the verb “to pray” aside, as well as the florid excesses of certain Church ladies, the reality is a transcedant, mystical one, and all the cool blooded rationalism in the world cannot pierce it. As both St. Paul (Romans 11:36) and the canon of the mass aver, it’s all “through Him, with Him and in Him.”

  • saint

    I think the confusion starts because most outside the Catholic/Orthodox church equate “pray” in modern English, with addressing a deity, or even the supreme deity. I am not sure that one would avoid it by even saying one asks for a saint’s intercession.

    That also presupposes those who have fallen asleep in Christ can hear us in the same way God can. And while I doubt that any Christians would argue that those have fallen asleep in Christ, while with Christ, and still awaiting their resurrection, do not intercede for His kingdom to come on earth as in heaven, I think the sticking point is there. Can they hear us. Are we entreated to ask for their intercession? Yes Peter, James and John saw Moses and Elijah – but both had unusual exits from earthly life…and so the arguments go round and round.

    On the other hand, as others point out, the lived experience of many Catholics and Orthodox and perhaps others is that they do address their requests to a saint or angel – “St Joseph heal me” not “St Joseph pray for me” – and attribute miracles to the saint. I think to argue a meaning for ‘pray’ as in the idiom ‘pray tell’ absolves one is not correct. That is not the everyday understanding of ‘pray’ on the street (well not down here it isn’t)

    This is no different I guess to the problems of translating the particular lingo of non-Catholic/Orthodox Christians and the discrepancies between their theology and lived experience.

    An example that goes the other way: many Catholic/Orthodox Christians equate the Reformer’s sola Scriptura (Scripture as the only infallible authroity, and therefore the final authority; tradition, human reason, religious experience, preaching etc as norma normata which must be continually tested by Scripture) with nuda Scriptura (bare Scripture as the only authority in the church).

    However, I am sure most of us all know many Christians who speak, live and act by nuda Scriptura.

    Don’t know what the answer is to your question though tmatt.

  • Fr Raymond

    The problem is linguistic, not theological.
    “I pray thee”, was a phrase that could have been used not so long ago by a husband addressing his child, his wife, a saint or God, as a subsitite for “I beg” or “I ask”. It does not suggest that “latria”, “dulia” or “hyper-dulia” are being offered to the object of the “praying”.

  • Str1977

    Sorry tmatt, I will address the topic in a second. But first:


    “To believe that a saint can act any other way, once in holy Union is teaching the exact wrong idea …”

    Mmmh, do you think that Saints are robots? Of course they are willing what God wills but they doing so out of their own will and not by somehow being wired to God. And even they, in the presence of God, do not know all God knows (which is, given that they are enjoying the vision of God, not a minus).

    However, I agree with your former post about nitpicking, as …

    … the wording “pray to” seems to be fine. Sure, there are other ways to put this, ways more elaborate and more doctrinally clear, but “pray to” is in no way wrong. And sure, Protestantism and people infused by it will raise their eyebrows on that concept (as even this thread has shown).

    Of course, there are problems of etymology and how one understands the word “pray” (is it simply “ask” as in Shakespeare, or ask beyond the physical realm, or is it ask God? – the second is the prevalent meaning nowadays and I see no problem with this.)

    Everyone, including journalists, can always do a still better job, but I won’t tell them off for this particular wording.

    (The same etymological problem does exist with the word “worship” … the consequences here are much more volatile than in regard to “pray”.)

  • tmatt

    So, basically, very few of you give a flip about the ordinary meanings of ordinary words that are in newspapers and whether ordinary readers have some chance to understand what Catholics believe?

    Once again, notice the number of posts in this long list that focus on the doctrine — which is not the point of my post — and how few focus on what newspapers attempt to write about the doctrine.

    This is one reason why newspapers do not GET religion. Few religious people GET newspapers and what newspapers have to do for general readers.

  • coco

    It has to stay “pray to the saints”, despite the possible scandal. The doctrine of the communion of saints is essentially this: those who have died really exist and can help us as much (or more) than the living.

    The power of the living or dead to help us is always by the grace and gift of God, which we explicitly recognise when we ask anyone (living or dead) to help us “in God’s name” or “for Christ’s sake”, etc.

    Eric P makes the strange assertion that asking someone for help that an materialist would assume doesn’t exist (i.e. not verifiably present) constitues an act of (divine) worship to that person.

    I can’t see how substituting “to” will not detract from the doctrine of the communion of saints. Let it be explained, by all means, but don’t compromise it by qualifications that actually distort it. Using “with” would, IMHO.

  • Chuck

    We are asking too much of journalism. Even the most knowledgeable religion editor must get the message out in the most economical way possible, understanding that newsprint’s expensive (what, you’d think it grew on trees or something). Sometimes the most economical way is to go with the conventions of semantics. One of the meanings of “pray” is simply to make an earnest request. I pray you, news folk, to be my Catholic apologist, but I fear my prayer will be left on the editor’s desk unanswered.

  • Deacon Peter

    While most of the commentors here have been grappling with Theological semantics, it seems that the journalist, in this case, was grappling with the semantics of style.

    I think that everyone (the journalist who wrote this article and the readers of this blog) is struggling with using twice as many words to say, in essence, the same thing. Order would have helped in this article, I think. Using the phrase, “a miracle attributed to intercession before God by John Paul,” before saying, “after praying to John Paul” would have helped. Expanding a primary reference to the practice by using 20 or 25 words would help even more – then allusions to “praying to the saints,” could be used elsewhere in the article knowing that the practice was defined at the beginning.

    So, I would suggest defining a theological phrase which is pregnant by meaning (in an instance such as this) – then use it at will in following references.

  • Michael Kremer


    “Hey Amy Welborn:

    Say WHAT?”

    I think she was just making the point, that many others have made in this thread, that “pray” has also got the meaning “ask.” Her title “Prithee, go hence” (from Antony and Cleopatra) is just an example of this usage (“prithee” means “I pray you”).

  • Kathy

    tmatt, you’re the journalist. Why don’t you take the doctrine and put it into words?

    Several have made sound suggestions:
    1. Use a direct quote, or,
    2. Instead of “prayed to,” say “asked the intercession of”

    The confusion lies in the fact that “I prayed to” is a usually shorthand for a longer expression in which the necessary distinctions are made. “So I says to him, ‘Mr. President, I humbly ask permission to use the Roosevelt Room for my tea party’”–by all these words, one understands something of the relationship that is implied.

    Rightly worded, intercessory prayer contains expressions like “through” or “please ask” that specify the distinction between the more indirect help of the saints and the absolute directness of the help of God.

    However, prayers do not always take place in words. What does it mean when an Orthodox believer venerates (kisses) an icon of St. Andrew in the depth of his longing for Christian unity? How would you put that into the NYTimes?

  • Henry Dieterich

    My earlier comment was, it’s true, not to the main point but was directed to Mr. Hoh’s side issue.

    I don’t have an answer to the main question, because I don’t think that, no matter what language is used in a secular journalistic account, most Americans will get the point. (I say Americans, because I am one and have lived here all my life, not because I think Americans are particularly dense or odious. I don’t know whether this applies to people in other countries.)

    The reason they won’t get it is that the prevailing American religion is a kind of paganism that does not include the transcendence of God. American religion–as reflected in popular culture, jokes, and so on–considers God as a kind of boss of heaven, not fundamentally different in nature from the other denizens of the the place, only superior in power. The devil is likewise the boss of hell, and roughly equivalent to God. When we die, according to this religion, we “go to heaven” if we are “good.” This “going to heaven” consists in a spatial relocation and entrance into the celestial establishment headed by God. In one version of this theology, we become angels. (In this respect, Mormonism is the most fully developed form of American paganism.) To someone with this mental picture of God and the life to come, belief in any role of saints, whether intercessory or otherwise, is polytheistic, since it involves the invocation of subordinate beings of similar nature to Deity. If you say, “pray to the saints” they will think of them as inferior deities; if you speak of the “intercession of the saints” they will picture something like the conversation of Thetis and Zeus in the Iliad; if you say “praying with the saints,” if they imagine anything, it would probably be a kind of subjective identification, as when I am inspired by the words of Abraham Lincoln. The notion of a God Who is utterly transcendent, and yet Who became a man in order that we who are incorporated into Him in baptism might be His Body, the actual physical extension of His Incarnation, experiencing this relation in its fullness in the life to come–this is alien to them. And why shouldn’t it be? It comes by faith, and faith by grace and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. They may be curious about our religion, but until they hear and accept the underlying word of truth, and partake of that same heavenly Wisdom, they will interpret it in whatever faulty way they can.

  • Michel

    tmatt said

    “So, basically, very few of you give a flip about the ordinary meanings of ordinary words that are in newspapers and whether ordinary readers have some chance to understand what Catholics believe? ”


    But it is even worse than that, many of my fellow Roman Catholics believe that if they are misunderstood, it is always the fault of the person doing the misunderstanding.

    And the fall back position is, well, it’s just semantics and an argument about the meaning of “to pray”.

    Sister Marie has said probably said the words “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death” thousands of times. If, when speaking to the press, she didn’t pause to think about how she was formulating things it isn’t the media’s fault for reporting what she said.

    A reporter has no obligation but to report the common language used.


  • Kathy

    The job of the journalist is to explain by reduction.
    The job of the Catholic is to intensify.
    How exactly are these two supposed to converge in one kind of language?

  • Michel


    Once upon a time, “to make love to” meant to flirt in a serious way.

    Similarly, “intercourse” once meant “to interact with” and one could have “social intercourse”, “commercial intercourse”or “sexual intercourse”.

    Today, the language has evolved such that “making love” and “intercourse” have specifically sexual connotations. If I spoke to the press and said “I had made love to” and “had intercourse” with a woman I was not married to, it would not be reasonable to insist that the press should have understood otherwise based on antiquated usages of the language.


  • Mark Windsor


    I’m confused on one thing. Are you looking for suggested verbiage or just our opinion on what journalism should do?

    I think “pray to” is about as short as you can get without generating a doctrinal discsussion. Do I care about the clarity of the idea relative to what non-Catholics might think of it? Sure, but I also recognize the limitations of language – especially the language of journalism – and the necessity for EXTREME brevity on your part.

    Journalism is a field designed to squash complexity into a single line or a single paragraph. No matter what you do, you’re bound to do an injustice to a moderatly complex issue. It’s the nature of the beast – especially in an age where soundbites are considered long if they go for more than three seconds.

    If you’re looking for something to fit in one sentence in a 600 word limit, then you’re kinda stuck with “pray to”.

    If you’re looking for one or two lines in a bigger word limit, you might try something like: “Catholics believe that saints in heaven can assist those still here on earth. When called upon, these saints can add their prayers to those of he petitioner.”

    If you’re doing a whole page and space isn’t so big a consideration: “Catholics believe in a Communion of Saints – those souls departed from this life that have already made it to heaven. Once in heaven, such saints have the ability to add their prayers to those of a petioner here on earth. The combined prayers of the saint and the petitioner are, they hope, more pleasing to God. In this way, some actions on earth are seen as a miracle of God via the intercession of the saint.”

    The language still doesn’t do the topic justice, but you get the idea.

    I don’t suggest these things per se. I’m just offering them as ideas.

  • Martha

    Ah, now, tmatt, if I had known that all you needed to satisfy you were direct quotes from the Liturgy… ;-)

    So, if you were writing this story, how would *you* phrase it?

  • chris


    Mmmh, do you think that Saints are robots? Of course they are willing what God wills but they doing so out of their own will and not by somehow being wired to God. And even they, in the presence of God, do not know all God knows (which is, given that they are enjoying the vision of God, not a minus).

    Since that appears to be more of a reflection of how you parse conceptions I have to say that many are limited in this earthly existence by just such pictures of that fullness of life yet to come and so I fully trust that God’s unfathomable generosity takes into consideration just how much we are capable of grasping during our earthly existence. We shouldn’t then head into that other realm with our limited ways of conceptualizing but rather stay safely in faith in what He has revealed to us thus far – that man cannot conceive of what God has in store for us. Thus, being purified of all that would hold us back from that complete surrender to living in God’s will has a greater meaning for us than any idea of “robots”. When one is completely with Him, there can no longer be any ups and downs, hesitations, according to our own wills. I did not say that we were gods, but perhaps so imbued with Love that only His will is established through us according to the completed perfect design He always intended. It is said by certain mystics that the level of Purgatory closest to heaven is for getting used to that last acceptance of/surrender to, that Kind of Love, cutting through the last vestiges of attachment to one’s own will/fears/attachments, getting more comfortable in such Love, so to speak.

    If, while in this world, as someone said above, we are still effected by our attachments, guilt, wrong views of our relationships to God, etc., and we, being human, wish to pray to a more “certain” idea of benevolence of one we feel we have more in common with because they have perhaps overcome some of the same weaknesses, then I would have to believe that, in God’s providence, that is just how He permits our growing closer to Him. What humility that is. If the journalists get it wrong and people wind up beginning to pray (at least) to, say, John Paul II, that isn’t such a bad place to begin!

  • Martha

    I have to agree with the others – if you’re asking for a short, concise wording, then you’re pretty much stuck with ‘pray to’.

    The doctrinal disquistions which you found tedious are all part of that; first we have to define just what exactly it is we are doing and what we mean before we can put it into a phrase.

    If you want the non-Catholic/non-believer to understand what’s going on, you’ll have to print at least a paragraph of explanation. If you’re unwilling or unable to do this, you’ll have to stick with “pray to” and put up with the possibility of misunderstanding.

    If you asked a scientist to ‘gimme a quick explanation of how the Universe came into being in five words’, I’d bet you’d be told it couldn’t be done that simply; the idea is of some complexity and so the expression has to be of some length. Like it or lump it, Catholics are going to say ‘pray to’ and reporters, if reporting what they said, are going to use that wording. It’s not done out of not caring what non-Catholics think; it’s like asking a sportsman to comment on what happened during a game – how many baseball players or footballers or whatever are going to say “Well, for the benefit of those who do not play the sport, let me explain that when I say I hit a homerun, it means…”?

  • dannyboy

    OK, let me chime in with those who actually do care about the choice of words. I want to address the question of where the responsibility for clarification lies.

    When a journalist is interviewing a scientist who uses a slightly obscure concept (one that is not at all obscure to other scientists), does the responsibility lie with the scientist to constantly watch how he phrases things, or with the journalist to not assume that she or her readers will necessarily understand what is being said?

    I would say that in the case of a topic which is well known to confuse people, there is some responsibility on both parts. While I wouldn’t chastize a reporter or a nun for using the phrasing familiar to and understandable to Catholics, I do think it might be helpful for those Catholics who are aware of the problem to be more precise when speaking outside of Catholic circles and to start pressuring reporters to be more circumspect.

    Now a word on the theological question (sorry tmatt!!)about bureaucracy, I think there is substantial scriptural evidence for a kind of bureaucracy when angels are involved. Certain angels are given certain kinds of tasks that God could, of course, do directly if He wanted to. That the situation is the same with human saints is not obvious from scripture, but the Church has used its authority to affirm that such a situation does in fact exist and that affirmation does not seem impious or unlikely given the state of affairs that we see with the angels.

  • bob

    Another wrench to throw in. The phrase that ends many Orthodox services “Through the prayers of our holy fahters, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us” isn’t referring to the saints, but the prayers of the “fathers”, the assumed community of monastics, there present at the service. When it’s a congregation of nuns it might be expected to say “mothers” but in practice it doesn’t happen! When it’s a congregation of laymen in a parish, it just gets confused.

  • Jim Cope

    The crux of the matter is the meaning of to pray. In this context to pray is used in its more archaic meaning of to ask. The Shakespeare quote back in the early comments uses this meaning. To pray in this context does not mean to worship.

    We have a lack of a common vocabulary between religious language and secular language. The chasm is sometimes too wide to bridge. Perhaps the secular folks could write prayed to (asked of) Saint so and so instead of just further confusing things.

  • Kathy

    I’m sure it’s not that easy. We don’t ask the saints’ intercession in precisely the same way in which we ask one another’s intercession. We ask them because they’re in glory, they are closer to the will and heart of God than we are. So “pray”–in the modern sense of addressing God–is MORE appropriate in speaking to a saint than with one another. Not that saints are God, but that they are closer in their approach to being divinized.

    So much so, that the efficacy of such intercessory prayer is the mark of a saint.

  • cricket

    Why pray with or to the saints?
    I pray at the saints–and if they don’t like it, t’ heck wiffem.

  • Julia

    I’m 62 and I don’t think the concept of “pray” and “prayer” changed all that long ago. It’s jusst that Protestants predominate in our culture and their take on the words is what is the common usage in the US.

    I’m a retired lawyer. The end of every complaint that is filed is what is known as the “prayer”. After you set out the facts of the case, it’s the phrase(s) where you ask the judge for the relief you want – money or a name change or a preliminary injunction or a divorce, etc. This is still the case – this sense of the word didn’t disappear. The many, many lawyers in this country understand “prayer” perfectly well. We are just getting illiterate in this country.

    As to “worship”. Lots of Protestants still call their bishops “Your Worship”. That can’t be likening the bishops to the diety, can it? Isn’t there also a Protestant wedding
    vow or song about “I do thee worship” or something like that. (It shows up in English and WASP movies on TCM now and then) I’m sure the bride/groom don’t really think their intended spouse is God.

    It’s just another case of the battles over what the heck do “works” and “justification” mean. I don’t know. Catholics don’t use those words – so the whole argument is beyond me unless I really make an effort to read up on it. I have read many article in the mainstream press that assume a Protestant understanding of those words. I have never heard a Protestant worry about how unlettered readers don’t understand what the reporter is reporting.

    Chalk it up to having different vocabularies and fuggedaboutit.

  • ELC

    Re: #61. I just opened a booklet of prayers and devotions to St. Joseph. Sure enough, the prayers are grammatically addressed to St. Joseph, i.e. ” . . . I ask you to help me be a good husband to my wife . . . . Saint Joseph, pray for me.” This is one of those instances when what is presumed to be understood is crucial. It is presumed that one understands that the saint accomplishes these things through intercessory prayer to God, not of the saint’s own accord or power or authority. Catholics ought to have that understanding, and I think we can presume that they have it; others need not have that understanding, so I don’t think it should be presumed that they have it. IOW, I think a secular newspaper saying that Catholics pray to saints is mostly likely to be misleading to the general reader.

  • Stephen A.

    I only scanned through all of these great posts, so forgive me if I missed the answer to this question I’m about to ask, or the point I’m going to make here.

    This non-Catholic is a bit confused about the “pray to the saint” question for another reason: Pope JPII is NOT YET a saint. How can one pray to someone who’s not yet a saint? Or does a *Blessed* person on the path to sainthood get the privilege of praying while they’re “in the pipeline” so to speak? And what’s the difference?

    These are the kinds of questions I think warrant a favorite device of mine: the sidebar. It would tackle these kinds of questions, including perhaps those that would be tedious to put into the article, or “too theological” or, perhaps, those that are misunderstood by outsiders like me, such as the “praying TO” question that has been taken up so ably here.

    I think 89 comments is a record of some kind for a post. Or close to it.

  • Eric Phillips

    Coco said,

    > Eric P makes the strange assertion that asking someone
    > for help that an materialist would assume doesn’t exist
    > (i.e. not verifiably present) constitues an act of
    > (divine) worship to that person.

    Hey Coco, can you quote me saying that? You can’t? That’s because I didn’t. Stop making things up.

    “To pray to” does NOT mean “to worship as God.”

  • Sarah


    Canonized saints are (briefly) those that the Catholic Church has declared are in heaven from its examination of the evidence. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t others in heaven who can intercede and pray for us. There is also the concept (I do not know how well developed or declared) that those being cleansed (of what they have to be to reach heaven) in purgatory are able to pray for us before reaching heaven. They just can’t pray for themselves.

    So the publicly recognized, canonized saints are licit for various public devotions – asking the saints to pray for us at mass, for instance. But private prayers can ask for *anyone* we reasonably think is in heaven to intercede for us. One example would be a child praying to a dead parent for their intercession. Another is those who pray for the intercession of a dead person who has not yet been beatified or canonized. Clearly, to get the required miracles requires asking for intercession – without permission for private prayers, there would be a catch-22 in the way of any new saints.

    This really gets complicated for readers without the background. But it’s also clearly of interest to those who would want to read religion coverage. If a sidebar included the public vs private prayers, to explain why people pray for JPII’s intercession already, it would also go a long way toward putting “pray to” in the Catholic context. I think “pray to” is fine, but a sidebar or in-article explanation is better in our pluralistic society.

  • John G

    Echoing #51 from Maureen, perhaps the sentence can be reworded as

    …who said she was miraculously healed after John Paul prayed for her.

    This is explained later in the article:

    If a church committee agrees that the cure was a miracle attributed to intercession before God by John Paul, then the late pope is eligible to be beatified, the step preceding sainthood.

  • paul zerovnik

    on praying to the saints. should we reword it so it is digested better?. when you say the OUR FATHER and you say lead us not into temptation, does not this really mean to lead us through victourious. yes it does. when i pray the hail mary i like to say “hail mary full of grace the lord is with you, blessed are you amoung women and blessed is the fruit of your woumb jesus, our God our Saviour our LORD. that last little ditty i put in there. the short answer is no. no need to word smythe. just roll with it and edcuate oneself. God Bless Everyone