Q: Dear Father, I am a “cradle Catholic” who is dating an evangelical Christian from a “mega church” background (although I believe his extended family includes both Baptists and Methodists). He attends Mass with me often and seems interested in our Catholic faith, but one thing he doesn’t understand is our prayer to saints and our depiction of them in statues and icons. He thinks you should only pray to God. How do I explain devotion to the saints to him?
A: First, I want to commend you for treating dating as it should be — discernment. Dating, in my opinion, is discernment because you must establish with moral certitude God’s will for your relationship — does God want the two of you to enter into the sacrament of marriage with each other?
You also should be commended for your efforts to evangelize and share the faith. As you know, Catholics know and believe that there is a certain fullness of faith in the Church. Everything that God intended us to have for our salvation and sanctification is to be found in the Catholic Church. Your friend’s “interest” in the faith reminds me of my own recognition that my Protestant upbringing, as good as it was, was missing things essential to a complete and holistic understanding of God’s Word. Central to my “conversion” was the sacramental vision of Christianity so clearly present in Scripture for those with “eyes to see” (Matthew 13:15–17) but absent in much, if not all, of Protestantism.
Your friend’s question really has two parts—the role of the saints in our devotional life and the question of our depiction of saints in Christian art. Taking them in order, I would start with the biblical witness to the intercessory role of the saints in heaven.
For example, in Revelation 5:8 we find a description of John’s mystical vision of the divine liturgy in heaven: “When he [Jesus—“the Lamb”] took it [the scroll], the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders held a harp and gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the holy ones.” Here is a clear indication that the “elders” (the twelve apostles are representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel, showing the continuity between the Old and New Testaments and between Israel and the New Israel of the Church) intercede for us with our prayers. Thus the saints are our intercessors.
In Hebrews 11 and 12, sacred Scripture holds up to us the faith of “the ancients” (Hebrews 11:2). The heroes of the Old Testament are holy examples for us to imitate: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:1–2). Here we see that the saints give witness to how to “fight the good fight of faith” (1 Timothy 6:12). St. Paul also teaches the importance of imitating the saints when he says, with all true humility: “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). The saints are thus our exemplars.
In addition, I would speak to him of the mystical experience of Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor when our Lord was transfigured before them (Luke 9:28–36). In this particular “retreat,” when Jesus goes up to pray, we see him conversing with two Old Testament “saints,” Moses and Elijah, representing the law and the prophets. They speak with him of his upcoming pasch (his “Passover,” or exodus). Here we see the communion of the saints as Jesus stands in the Father’s presence with Moses and Elijah. Thus the saints are our companions and our friends on the pilgrim journey of faith.
This understanding of the saints as intercessors, examples, and friends also makes it easier to explain our art and piety. Similar to the pictures of our friends and family we display around our house or our office, the statues and icons of saints call to mind their example and their companionship. They remind us to stay in communion with them, ask for their intercession, and imitate their virtue. They should always lead us toward a deeper union with Jesus.
With Mary, all the saints teach us “to do whatever he tells us” (see John 2:5), and with St. Paul they all say, each in their own way, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” Thus the saints, far from being any distraction from our love of God, aid us in “keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus.” In a way, one definition of a saint is someone in heaven whose eyes are totally fixed upon Jesus, “the leader and perfecter of faith.”