Definition of Terms:
The intercession of the saints is the belief that Christians may ask saints, who are considered to be in heaven, to pray on their behalf to God. The saints are seen as spiritual advocates who can intercede and present the prayers of the faithful to God. This practice is based on the belief in the communion of saints, which is the spiritual bond between the living members of the Church and those who have passed away. Intercessory prayers offered by saints on behalf of others are seen as expressions of love and support within the Christian community. The belief in the intercession of Saints can be illustrated through a few key points;
- That the more righteous can intercede on behalf of the less righteous.
- That this does not diminish Christ’s role as the One Mediator, but rather it is through Christ’s role as mediator that the members of His Body are able to act as mediators and pray for one another.
- That this can continue even after death.
The concept of seeking the intercession of holy individuals can be traced back to Jewish tradition, where figures like Moses and Elijah were revered for their closeness to God and their ability to intercede on behalf of others. In the Old Testament, there are instances where individuals like Abraham (Genesis 18:22-33) and Moses (Exodus 32:9-14) interceded on behalf of others, demonstrating the idea of mediation between God and humanity. In Genesis 18:26, when questioned by Abraham, God says that He will spare the wicked on account of the righteous. In Exodus 32:30-33, Moses is seen interceding on behalf of Israel. In Job 42:8, God tells the wicked that Job will offer their sacrifice on their behalf. 2 Kings 13:21 recounts a miraculous event involving the bones of the prophet Elisha. God’s power is seen here working through a holy person’s relics, thereby supporting the idea of invoking saints for their intercession.
The New Testament also reflects the idea of intercession. For instance, in Matthew 5:44 and James 5:16, believers are encouraged to pray for one another, indicating the practice of intercessory prayer. Paul strongly encourages Christians to intercede for each other in his letter to Timothy (1 Tim 2:1-4). Paul also directly asks others to pray for him (Rom. 15:30–32, Eph. 6:18–20, Col. 4:3, 1 Thess. 5:25, 2 Thess. 3:1), and he assured them that he was praying for them as well (2 Thess. 1:11).
If believers on earth can pray for each other, it is plausible that saints in heaven could also intercede through prayer on behalf of the living. Throughout the Bible, there are instances of angels acting as messengers and intercessors between God and humans. For instance, in the Old Testament, the angel Raphael is portrayed as an intercessor for Tobit and Sarah in Tobit 12:12. Hebrews 12:1 refers to the “great cloud of witnesses,” which implies the presence and influence of departed believers as witnesses to the living, encouraging and supporting them in their faith journey. Luke 15:7 reminds us of the joy in heaven over even one repentant sinner. The saints in heaven therefore are aware of our hearts, rooting for our genuine repentance, and offering prayers on our behalf. Revelation 5:8 and Revelation 8:3-4 even depicts heavenly beings offering the prayers of the living to God in the form of incense.
The Communion of Saints:
To fully understand the concept of the Communion of Saints, one must first understand exactly how human intercession is possible. 1 Timothy 2:5-6 explicitly states that Christ is the one mediator between God and man. The Church also emphasizes that Christ remains the one mediator between God and humanity. The saints’ intercession does not replace or undermine Christ’s role but rather complements it. Christ’s unique mediation is the foundation for all prayers, including those directed to the saints. We, as Christians, are called to pray for one another, evangelize, and spread the Good news, which are all acts of mediation. It is through participation in the Body of Christ that Christians share in the role of Christ’s mediation THROUGH Christ’s unique mediation.
The ability of the Saints to intercede for us is tied closely to the concept of the Body of Christ. The Bible teaches the unity of believers as one body in Christ, known as the “Communion of Saints” (1 Corinthians 12:12-27), which includes the Church on earth (militant), the Church in purgatory (suffering), and the Church in heaven (triumphant). The Communion of Saints recognizes that all Christians are part of one spiritual body, with Christ as the head. This interconnectedness means that the saints in heaven and the believers on earth are not separated but rather united in their devotion to God. Scripture indicates that those have died in Christ are not “dead” but are spiritually alive in Christ. Christ makes it clear in Mark 12:27 that God is the God of the living, not the dead and Ephesians 2:5 reaffirms that we are alive in Christ. The concept that the saints in heaven can indeed interact with the living is witnessed in Matthew 17:3 where Moses and Elijah appear and talk with Jesus.
This concept emphasizes the unity and interdependence among all members of the Church. 1 Cor 12:21-26 demonstrates the dependence that all Christians have for one another as one cannot say to another “I have no need of you”. Our need of our brothers and sisters in heaven to intercede for us goes back to the concept of the more righteous interceding for the less righteous. James 5:16 states that the “prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective,” highlighting the efficacy of the prayers of righteous individuals. Saints, who are exceptionally righteous, have a greater ability to intercede effectively before God. They are thus powerful intercessors before God due to their close relationship with Him. As a result, believers can ask for the intercession of those in heaven, just as they might ask for prayers from fellow Christians on earth.
The Early Church:
The belief in the intercession of saints has been an integral part of Christian tradition since the early centuries of Christianity. Early Church Fathers like St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Clement of Alexandria spoke of the intercession of saints as an important aspect of Christian belief and practice. Early Christians also had a strong reverence for the martyrs who died for their faith. Christian writings frequently mention the practice of asking deceased Christians, especially martyrs and saints, to intercede with God on behalf of the living.
The early Church developed a “martyr’s cult” where the memory of the martyrs were celebrated, and their tombs became places of pilgrimage and prayer. The relics of martyrs were venerated and were often kept in special containers known as reliquaries. Countless stories of miraculous healings and deliverances were associated with the veneration of relics during this period. Many early Christian basilicas and churches were built over the graves of martyrs. For example, the Basilica of Saint Peter in Vatican City was built over the tomb of Saint Peter, who is considered one of the earliest martyrs of the Christian faith.
These practices, along with the writings of the early Christian theologians and Church Fathers, point to a strong and widespread belief in the intercession of Saints in the early church. While there was not a fully developed doctrine as it exists today, there are clear indications of the veneration and invocation of saints for their intercession.
Necromancy vs. the Communion of Saints;
Necromancy, which is strictly prohibited in Deuteronomy 18:10-11, involves attempting to communicate with the dead or summoning spirits to gain information or power. An example of this is given in 1 Samuel 28:3-25 where King Saul seeks out a medium to summon the spirit of the deceased prophet Samuel for the purpose of gaining insight and guidance. Intercession of the Saints, on the other hand, is the belief that the saints in heaven can pray on behalf of the living, acting as intercessors before God. The distinction lies in the intent and nature of the act, as asking for the prayers of souls in heaven does not involve supernatural communication with the dead for the intention of gaining arcane knowledge that God Himself did not wish to impart.
Prayer vs. Worship;
When Catholics pray to the saints, they use the word “pray” in a specific context. The term “pray” in this context does not mean they are worshiping the saints as deities, but rather they are making a request or seeking intercession from the saints to pray for them or on their behalf.
The Webster Dictionary defines prayer as:
- To address a Supreme Being, as in worship, or
- To petition; to plead; or to ask, as for a favor.
While prayer can be a form of worship when it is directed towards God, it can also simply mean “to ask”. It is in this sense that Catholics use the term “pray” when speaking of “praying to the Saints.”
In Early Modern English (circa 1500-1700) and Victorian English (circa 19th century), the use of the word “pray” as a polite and formal request became common usage. It was commonly used by writers like Shakespeare to denote respectful inquiries or by authors like John Milton, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens to indicate polite requests or questions. Examples of this can be found in phrases like “pray tell” and “pray, give me assistance” as used by Shakespeare or “pray proceed” or “pray, enlightenment me” or “pray, take a seat” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, or even in the King James Bible when Bathsheba says, “I pray thee, sir, say me not nay” (1 Kings 2:20, KJV).
Language is dynamic, and meanings can shift based on usage and cultural factors. While “pray” still retains its original meaning of “to ask” or “to request,” its connotations might vary depending on the context and the prevailing cultural norms. The development of the usage of “pray” in relation to worship and prayer is influenced by various historical and religious factors, including the Protestant Reformation. During the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, one of the central theological differences between Protestantism and Catholicism was the understanding of worship and the concept of the Mass.
Protestants rejected certain Catholic practices, such as the belief in the sacrificial nature of the Mass. The importance of individual worship and personal relationship with God became central to Protestant practices. As a result, the act of prayer itself became a more significant aspect of worship. Consequently, the association of “pray” with “worship” became more prominent in Protestant contexts, resulting in a tendency to understand the word “pray” specifically as worship. In recognition of the evolution of language, the Church has began to move away from the phrase “praying to the Saints” and has instead began to adopt the phrase the “invocation of the Saints intercession” in its place.
“Now therefore, take for yourselves seven bulls and seven rams, go to My servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and My servant Job shall pray for you. For I will accept him, lest I deal with you according to your folly; because you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has.”
2 Kings 13:21
“So it was, as they were burying a man, that suddenly they spied a band of raiders; and they put the man in the tomb of Elisha; and when the man was let down and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and stood on his feet.”
2 Maccabees 15:14–17
“Thus having gone through the whole army with his invincible word, this was the manner of his prayers: When he had ended these words, there came a fire out of the rock, and consumed the sacrifices toward the altar, and the light shone from the rock, so that all wondered.”
“I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who stand ready and enter before the glory of the Lord.”
“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”
“I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.”
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
1 Timothy 2:1-4
“Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
“He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living. You are therefore greatly mistaken.”
“even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).”
“And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.”
1 Corinthians 12:12-27
The analogy of the body of Christ, with each believer as a part of the body.
Church Father Quotes:
“The Shepherd said: ‘But those who are weak and slothful in prayer, hesitate to ask anything from the Lord; but the Lord is full of compassion, and gives without fail to all who ask him. But you, [Hermas,] having been strengthened by the holy angel [you saw], and having obtained from him such intercession, and not being slothful, why do not you ask of the Lord understanding, and receive it from him?’” (The Shepherd 3:5:4 [A.D. 80]).
“In this way is he [the true Christian] always pure for prayer. He also prays in the society of angels, as being already of angelic rank, and he is never out of their holy keeping; and though he pray alone, he has the choir of the saints standing with him [in prayer]” (Miscellanies 7:12 [A.D. 208]).
“But not the high priest [Christ] alone prays for those who pray sincerely, but also the angels . . . as also the souls of the saints who have already fallen asleep” (Prayer 11 [A.D. 233]).
“Let us remember one another in concord and unanimity. Let us on both sides [of death] always pray for one another. Let us relieve burdens and afflictions by mutual love, that if one of us, by the swiftness of divine condescension, shall go hence first, our love may continue in the presence of the Lord, and our prayers for our brethren and sisters not cease in the presence of the Father’s mercy” (Letters 56:5 [A.D. 253]).
“Atticus, sleep in peace, secure in your safety, and pray anxiously for our sins” (funerary inscription near St. Sabina’s in Rome [A.D. 300]).
“Pray for your parents, Matronata Matrona. She lived one year, fifty-two days” (funerary inscription near St. Sabina’s in Rome [A.D. 300]).
“Mother of God, listen to my petitions; do not disregard us in adversity, but rescue us from danger” (Rylands Papyrus 3 [A.D. 350]).
“Hail to you for ever, Virgin Mother of God, our unceasing joy, for to you do I turn again. . . . Hail, you treasure of the love of God. Hail, you fount of the Son’s love for man” (Oration on Simeon and Anna 14 [A.D. 305]).
“Therefore, we pray [ask] you, the most excellent among women, who glories in the confidence of your maternal honors, that you would unceasingly keep us in remembrance. O holy Mother of God, remember us, I say, who make our boast in you, and who in august hymns celebrate the memory, which will ever live, and never fade away” (ibid.).
“And you also, O honored and venerable Simeon, you earliest host of our holy religion, and teacher of the resurrection of the faithful, do be our patron and advocate with that Savior God, whom you were deemed worthy to receive into your arms. We, together with you, sing our praises to Christ, who has the power of life and death, saying, ‘You are the true Light, proceeding from the true Light; the true God, begotten of the true God’” (ibid.).
“Then [during the Eucharistic prayer] we make mention also of those who have already fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition” (Catechetical Lectures 23:9 [A.D. 350]).
“To those who wish to stand [in God’s grace], neither the guardianship of saints nor the defenses of angels are wanting” (Commentary on the Psalms 124:5:6 [A.D. 365]).
“You victorious martyrs who endured torments gladly for the sake of the God and Savior, you who have boldness of speech toward the Lord himself, you saints, intercede for us who are timid and sinful men, full of sloth, that the grace of Christ may come upon us, and enlighten the hearts of all of us so that we may love him” (Commentary on Mark [A.D. 370]).
“Remember me, you heirs of God, you brethren of Christ; supplicate the Savior earnestly for me, that I may be freed through Christ from him that fights against me day by day” (The Fear at the End of Life [A.D. 370]).
“By the command of your only-begotten Son we communicate with the memory of your saints . . . by whose prayers and supplications have mercy upon us all, and deliver us for the sake of your holy name” (Liturgy of St. Basil [A.D. 373]).
“Aschandius, my father, dearly beloved of my heart, with my sweet mother and my brethren, remember your Pectorius in the peace of the Fish [Christ]” (Epitaph of Pectorius [A.D. 375]).
“May you [Cyprian] look down from above propitiously upon us, and guide our word and life; and shepherd this sacred flock . . . gladden the Holy Trinity, before which you stand” (Orations 17 [A.D. 380]).
“Yes, I am well assured that [my father’s] intercession is of more avail now than was his instruction in former days, since he is closer to God, now that he has shaken off his bodily fetters, and freed his mind from the clay that obscured it, and holds conversation naked with the nakedness of the prime and purest mind” (ibid., 18:4).
“[Ephraim], you who are standing at the divine altar [in heaven] . . . bear us all in remembrance, petitioning for us the remission of sins, and the fruition of an everlasting kingdom” (Sermon on Ephraim the Syrian [A.D. 380]).
“He that wears the purple [i.e., a royal man] . . . stands begging of the saints to be his patrons with God, and he that wears a diadem begs the tentmaker [Paul] and the fisherman [Peter] as patrons, even though they be dead” (Homilies on Second Corinthians 26 [A.D. 392]).
“When you perceive that God is chastening you, fly not to his enemies . . . but to his friends, the martyrs, the saints, and those who were pleasing to him, and who have great power [in God]” (Orations 8:6 [A.D. 396]).
“May Peter, who wept so efficaciously for himself, weep for us and turn towards us Christ’s benign countenance” (The Six Days Work 5:25:90 [A.D. 393]).
“You say in your book that while we live we are able to pray for each other, but afterwards when we have died, the prayer of no person for another can be heard. . . . But if the apostles and martyrs while still in the body can pray for others, at a time when they ought still be solicitous about themselves, how much more will they do so after their crowns, victories, and triumphs?” (Against Vigilantius 6 [A.D. 406]).
“A Christian people celebrates together in religious solemnity the memorials of the martyrs, both to encourage their being imitated and so that it can share in their merits and be aided by their prayers” (Against Faustus the Manichean [A.D. 400]).
“At the Lord’s table we do not commemorate martyrs in the same way that we do others who rest in peace so as to pray for them, but rather that they may pray for us that we may follow in their footsteps” (Homilies on John 84 [A.D. 416]).
“Neither are the souls of the pious dead separated from the Church which even now is the kingdom of Christ. Otherwise there would be no remembrance of them at the altar of God in the communication of the Body of Christ” (The City of God 20:9:2 [A.D. 419]).
Martin Luther, Father of the Protestant Reformation
Such is the right interpretation and understanding of John’s expression, “We know that we have passed out of death into life because we love the brethren.” Here, in clear, decisive words, the conclusion is expressed that no man may boast of life unless he has love. . . . One who knows the wretchedness and misery of death from experience, but has entered upon life with its solace and joy, blessings he seeks to maintain, such a person will desire for others the same blessing.” –Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. John Nicholas Lenker, Baker Book House, 1988, vol. 8, 52-54
Roy H. Schoeman, a Jewish convert to Catholicism
“The burial site of the three patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has been venerated continually by Jews since their deaths about four thousand years ago. As Catholics make pilgrimages to the tombs of “dead” saints (sometimes enclosed in churches) to pray, so do Jews, both in biblical times and still today. . . . Other tombs of Old Testament saints to which Jews go to pray include those of Joseph, Rachel, King David, and the prophets Haggai, Malachi, and Samuel, all of which have been venerated for millennia.” –Catholic Devotion to the Saints, in the light of Jewish Scripture and Tradition, available at www.salvationisfromthejews.com