Veneration of Saints:
Definition of Terms:
The Veneration of saints refers to the practice of showing honor, respect, and devotion to the saints. This veneration includes prayers, seeking their intercession, and commemorating their lives as examples of faith. It is not an act of worship directed towards the saints themselves, but rather, it is a form of honor and respect shown to them as exemplary followers of Christ. Worship is the adoration and reverence offered to God alone, acknowledging His supreme sovereignty, majesty, and divine attributes as well as His work in the lives of the saints. Veneration, on the other hand, is understood to be an extension of Divine Justice in which each is given according to their due.
The practice of giving honor to those deserving of honor is a deeply Biblical concept. Paul says in Romans 13:7 to “give honor to those who deserve honor” and Christ tells us that anyone who obeys God’s commands “will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:19). Christ also taught that those who seek humility will be exalted in heaven, indicating a place of honor (Matt 19:30, 20:16). When James and John sought to have places of honor at Jesus’ right hand in heaven (Mark 10:35-40), Jesus does not deny that these positions exist, but rather tells them that they have already been given “to those for whom it has been prepared.” Mary, the mother of Jesus, predicted in her Magnificat that all generations would call her blessed (Luke 1:48), indicating her special role in salvation history and her exalted status as the mother of Jesus. In Matthew 26:13, Jesus speaks of the woman’s act of anointing him with expensive oil, saying that “what she has done will be told in memory of her.” These verses are all indications of God’s Divine Justice. Secular culture rightfully honors those deserving of honor, such as our founding fathers, civil rights heroes, and firefighters, servicemen, and soldiers who gave their lives in service to others. It is within God’s Divine Justice that more honor should be given to those who humbly gave their lives in service to God.
To distinguish the honor given to Saints from the worship given to God, the Church uses the terms veneration (or dulia) and adoration (or latria) respectively. The key distinction between worship and veneration lies in the focus and intention of the acts. Worship is directed solely to God as the ultimate source of all creation and salvation, while veneration is directed towards created beings who are seen as part of the communion of saints and have a special relationship with God. Internal disposition plays a crucial role in how Catholics understand worship and plays an integral part to worship’s authenticity and efficacy. The Catholic Church teaches that worship should not be merely an external ritual or formal act, but it must also involve the inner disposition of the worshipper’s heart and mind. Genuine worship is a reflection of the believer’s faith, love, and devotion to God, where both the external actions and internal disposition work together in harmony.
External gestures, such as kneeling, bowing, and kissing, and devotional acts such as bringing flowers and poetic language, are all considered expressions of veneration and honor for holy men and women who have lived virtuous lives and are now in the presence of God. Catholics may kneel or bow before statues or images of saints as a sign of respect and honor. It is a way to acknowledge the saints’ exemplary lives and their closeness to God. Devotional acts like kissing the feet or hands of a saint’s statue or bringing flowers to their images are gestures of love and veneration. These acts express the faithful’s desire to honor the saints and seek their intercession in prayer. Gestures of these kinds can be found in other daily actions unrelated to worship and do not imply the intention of worship. Examples may include a man kneeling before his fiancé, bringing a spouse flowers, kissing the picture of a loved one or writing them poetry, or bowing as part of the courtly conduct of royalty. These acts, in and of themselves, do not constitute worship.
The poetic language found particularly in Marian prayers developed as part of the courtly language of Medieval Europe. During the Middle Ages, courtly love poetry and chivalric culture influenced the expressions of devotion and admiration used in religious writings, including prayers dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The language used in Marian prayers are not meant to be understood literally, but as expressions of love and reverence to emphasize the special role of Mary as the Mother of Jesus. The poetic language in prayers to Mary is intended to convey a deep sense of devotion and trust in her intercessory role, rather than implying any equivalence to God.
It’s important to note that while these acts are common in Catholic devotion to saints, they are not obligatory. Different cultures and traditions within Catholicism may have varying practices of veneration. Similar to worship, the internal disposition behind these acts is significant. Veneration of saints should be a genuine expression of faith and love, recognizing the saints’ role as intercessors and their unique relationship with God. The ultimate purpose is to deepen one’s faith and draw closer to God through the example and prayers of the saints. The word “devotion” should also not be misconstrued as worship as people may be devoted to many things, such as their spouse, career, or hobby.
Early Christian writings, such as accounts of martyrdom, often show a strong veneration for those who suffered and died for their faith. These accounts depict the martyrs as courageous witnesses to the Christian faith, and believers regarded them as heroes and intercessors before God. Church Fathers, such as St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Polycarp, and St. Justin Martyr, spoke highly of the saints and their virtuous lives. Christian catacombs and burial sites contain inscriptions and artwork that indicate veneration of the saints. Early Christian liturgical practices also provide evidence of veneration. Feast days and liturgical commemorations were dedicated to specific saints, honoring their memory and contributions to the faith community.
Early Church Liturgies, such as the Liturgy of St. James, contains prayers that invoke the intercession of the Virgin Mary and other saints. For instance, in the Anaphora (Eucharistic prayer), there are petitions asking for the saints’ prayers and their intercession before God. The Liturgy of St. Basil also includes prayers seeking the intercession of the saints. The Anaphora of St. Basil includes supplications asking for the prayers of the Virgin Mary, apostles, prophets, martyrs, and other saints.
The Second Council of Nicaea (787 AD) affirmed the legitimacy of venerating icons and relics and declared that the honor given to them is ultimately directed towards the person they represent. The Council of Ephesus (431 AD), though primarily focused on the Christological controversies, also highlighted the veneration of the Virgin Mary. It declared Mary as “Theotokos” (God-bearer) to affirm the unique role she played in giving birth to Jesus Christ. The Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) indirectly emphasized the veneration of saints by addressing issues related to their relics. It defended the practice of venerating the relics of saints, affirming their importance in Christian devotion.
Worship and veneration of the saints were carefully differentiated in the early Church to ensure that the worship of God remained distinct from the honor and respect given to the saints. This distinction was crucial to prevent any confusion or blurring of the lines between divine worship and the veneration of human beings.
In ancient Judaism, particularly during the time of the First and Second Temples, sacrifices were essential components of worship. The offering of animals and other offerings was considered a means of atonement and thanksgiving to God. When the early Christian Church moved away from animal sacrifices practiced in Judaism, they focused more on the spiritual sacrifice found in the Eucharist. The Eucharist was seen as partaking in the spiritual sacrifice of Christ, that was offered once and for all on Calvary. The apostle Paul, in his writings, emphasized that believers should offer themselves as “living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1). This was understood by early Christians to be fulfilled by the Eucharist, where by partaking in communion, the believer could unite themselves to the Body of Christ and thus offer themselves along with Christ’s unique offering on the cross.
During the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin challenged the Catholic Church’s emphasis on elaborate sacrifices, particularly the Mass. They promoted the idea that true worship is more centered on the Word of God and prayer and faith, rather than relying on external rituals. This shift in attitude and it’s general understanding of worship resulted in blurred lines between true worship and veneration.
“Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
“‘Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.’”
“For he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”
“Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”
“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
“35 And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ 36 And he said to them, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ 37 And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ 38 Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?’ 39 And they said to him, ‘We are able.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.'”
1 Corinthians 3:12-15
“If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.”
“For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.”
“Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done.”
“He who receives a prophet because he is a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward, and he who receives a righteous man [saint] because he is a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward.”
“Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.”
1 Timothy 5:17
“Let the presbyters [priests] who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”
1 Corinthians 4:16-17
“I urge you, then, be imitators of me. Therefore I sent to you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.”
Church Father Quotes:
Clement of Alexandria
“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]).
Origen of Alexandria
“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]).
Cyprian of Carthage
“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]).
Cyril of Jerusalem:
“Then 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
Hilary of Poitiers
“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]).
Ephraim the Syrian
“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]).
Gregory of Nazianzus
“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).
Gregory of Nyssa
“[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]).
Ambrose of Milan
“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]).
Jerome of Stridon
“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]).
Augustine of Hippo
“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]).
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