saints

Protestants often wonder why Roman Catholics pray to saints. Are they elevating saints to the place of God? If not, then why bother praying to them? Why talk to a mere human when we can speak directly to God?

Roman Catholics have a good response. When you are in distress, don’t you ask other people to pray for you? That’s all we’re doing. If Protestants often solicit their brothers and sisters to pray or them, why can’t Roman Catholics ask their deceased brothers and sisters to do the same?

I have shared this Roman Catholic perspective with my Protestant community. I have never prayed to a saint, but I do not want to misrepresent my Roman Catholic friends who do.

But yesterday’s canonization of Mother Teresa raised some of the issues that make Protestants nervous. It is true that Roman Catholic theology instructs us to merely “venerate” Mother Teresa rather than “worship” her, and it teaches that her two documented miracles were not caused directly by her but by her intercession to God on the person’s behalf.

But such careful distinctions are easily lost when the two miracles are repeatedly “attributed” to Mother Teresa (without elaborating on her precise role) and when a vial of her blood is displayed for the faithful to “venerate.” Though well-intentioned, it’s easy to see how such devotion to a mere human may detract from our worship of God alone. It also leaves the impression that normal folks need super saints to lobby God on our behalf. God apparently ignored the pleas of Monica Besra to be healed of her stomach tumor until she enlisted the help of Mother Teresa. Now Monica says, “I consider Mother Theresa to be like God. I always pray to her.” This is a problem.

The Protestant answer is to thank God for the altruistic life of Mother Teresa and to assert that ultimately she is no more of a saint than any of us who are united with Christ. In ourselves and as such we all are sinners. In Jesus we all are saints. None of us have special powers with God. We all have full and equal access before him.

Sunday’s canonization should remind all Christians of who we already are and what we already have. We are saints, so let’s live saintly. We may speak to God directly, so let’s do it.

Photo by India7 Network. Via Flickr. Used by permission.

6 Comments

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  1. A good post, Mike, about an important topic.

    I’m with you all through — except for the penultimate paragraph, which seems to me to downplay the significance of sanctification unnecessarily. In one sense it is certainly true that Mother Teresa is “no more of a saint than any of us who are united with Christ.” But in another sense, it’s not true at all, is it? For God does not care only about our being covered with the imputed righteousness of Christ; he cares also about our being concretely renovated as Christ is formed in us. I’m worried that without some acknowledgement that a holy person really is “more of a saint” than I am, we unwittingly undermine the significance of actual, practical holiness — which, as you know, is just what Catholics always accuse Protestant accounts of imputation of doing.

    What do you think? Is this a problem, or am I overreacting? Could we add a sentence to recognize that there is a danger in the Protestant as well as in the Catholic direction?

    (Also, FYI, there’s a typo in the third sentence of that penultimate paragraph. You mean, “We all ARE saints.”)

  2. Thank you for catching my homonym mistake, Steve. Your right (see, I can’t stop doing it!).

    I am sensitive to your point, and thought I covered myself by saying “ultimately” she is no more of a saint. Of course she may have done more saintly things than you or I, but ultimately we are equally saints in Jesus. That was Luther’s and Calvin’s emphasis, which as you point out does risk underemphasizing sanctification, but it is an important truth of justification. I tried to address our need for sanctification in the last paragraph–let’s live like the saints we are–but I understand your concern.

  3. I have often wondered why many Christians ask others to pray for them. Aren’t we suppose to go in our closet, shut the door ( meaning, I think, don’t bother others) and pray. Or does the one with the largest pray chain win? If only I could get blank and blank or maybe blank to pray, my cancer would go away? And if the one with the biggest prayer chain isn’t any better off than the guy in the closet why should I call the “small group leader” to get him to start the prayer chain. I have always thought the Scripture taught my prayers could/can/have moved mountains. With a “personal” relationship with Christ Jesus what more does one need?

  4. Elden: I think you’re right to wonder about the modernization of prayer. We often approach prayer like scientists–the more people praying and the more minutes prayed (if we can get enough to pray around the clock) should somehow have greater effect. But on the plus side we are saved for community, and so it is important to pray with others and not merely for them.

  5. I believe it was Mike VanHorn who shared with us a Roman Catholic priest’s response regarding “praying to Mary”. He said we don’t pray to her, we ask for her intercession. If “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses”, perhaps this does make sense…and also recognizing that the effectiveness of prayer actually is dependent on the prayer’s holiness: “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
    With that said, it is concerning that many slip into language of “praying to Mary” (or others)…and then actually begin praying to Mary (or others), as if she were a god.
    Just a couple of thoughts.

  6. It has always bothered me when Christians feel they must pray to someone in Heaven to assist in intersession. Scripture is quite clear “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.”(Rm. 8:26,27, see also, Heb.7:25) This is true comfort with infinite power.
    Further, I have difficulty with the idea that those saints who are in heaven can even hear our prayers for the simple reason it can not be truly heaven if loved ones are, once again, brought into this vale of tears and made part of our sorrow and pain. How is that Paradise? Yes, there are a few verses in Scripture that the deceased (Abraham, Moses) have been made visible to the still living. But these are few and far between. The idea that “aunt Karen, or Mary, is up there looking down” is hard to defend with Scripture and I’m not sure “Karen or Mary” has any interest in earth as they are now surrounded with the indescribable glories of heaven and the arms of their Savior.

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