Recently the world has witnessed the canonization of Blessed Pedro Calungsod to sainthood. By this act, the Catholic Church has formally declared that Pedro Calungsod is worthy of our veneration and devotion, that we can ask for his intercession before God for our spiritual benefit and the Church presents him as a model of heroic virtue which can be emulated by all Christians most especially the young people. This development is welcomed by all Catholic Christians as a great gift from God in these times where there is a scarcity of saints. However, our separated brethren have regarded this with a lot of misgivings, opposition, and some with disdain mostly for doctrinal reasons. In this article I would like to present the Catholic position on the veneration of saints in order to enlighten non-Catholics and Catholics alike.
At the onset it is necessary to clarify certain misconceptions that Protestants pray directly to God whereas Catholics by invoking the saints do not pray directly to God. Actually, Catholics also pray directly to God. The Catholic Church is quite clear in teaching that it is necessary to pray to God for salvation. St Augustine said, “There is nothing more important for our salvation than prayer.” Catholics always pray using the Lord’s prayer which is a prayer addressed directly to God as our Father. Our prayer book, which is a collection of prayers composed by the popes and saints, are full of beautiful prayers and reflections drawn from the Bible and are addressed to God. The prayers which we pray in the celebration of the sacraments and most especially in the Holy Mass which is the highest form of Catholic worship are full of prayers addressed to God. Thus those who think that Catholics do not pray directly to God are grossly mistaken.
Catholics do not worship or adore the saints as many Protestants are inclined to believe but instead we honor and venerate them in much the same way as we Filipinos honor and venerate our heroes such as Dr. Jose Rizal for what they have done for our country and for the legacy of Filipino virtue which they have exemplified as a model for all generations of Filipinos. Now the saints may be said to be our heroes, not indeed in mortal combat, but in spiritual warfare, for what they have done for the advancement of God’s kingdom here on earth and for the legacy of living out Christian virtues, of which Jesus himself is our perfect model (Hebrews 12:2), which could serve as a model for all generations of Christ’s followers (1 Corinthians 11:1). Catholics venerate the saints not for their own sakes but because the saints are masterpieces of God’s grace and because they are God’s friends (John 15:15) and because we believe that the honor which we give to the saints ultimate redounds to God. In praising the work of art we are actually praising the artist by whose handiwork that piece of art came to be. Now the saints are God’s handiwork and in declaring a person as a saint the Church is simply acknowledging and praising God for the mighty works he has done (Luke 1:49). Thus those who accuse Catholics of saint-worship are either ignorant or gross misinformed on the authentic Catholic faith and practice.
While the Church teaches that it is necessary to pray to God for salvation She also teaches that it is useful and salutary to invoke the saints. Those who oppose this Catholic belief and practice are in fact partly doing in practice what they oppose in theory for we are very well aware that many, if not all, Protestants also ask their fellow Christians to pray for them and they definitely believe that the prayers of other people will in some way benefit them. Perhaps the only difference is that Protestants believe that when a fellow Christian dies that somehow his intercessory power will end in death while Catholics believe that such is not the case. Catholics believe that death is not the end of life but somehow at death life is transformed into something much more wonderful that we can ever imagine (1 John 3:2). The saints who are with God in heaven are united to him in a most perfect union commensurate with the perfection of charity which they have acquired while they were still on earth and because of this they are in a better position to help us who are still journeying here on earth (Philippians 1:21). Based on this perspective, it can be shown that the Catholic belief is the one which is more consistent.
Now Catholics may have confidence in recourse to the prayers of the saints if it can demonstrated that 1) they have the power to help us, 2) they are willing to help us, and 3) they can hear our petitions. Firstly, that the saints have the power to help us is well attested in Scriptures “for the continual prayer of a just man avails much” (James 5:16). Abraham interceded in behalf of Sodom and God agreed not to destroy the city if there will be found just five just men (Genesis 18:32). God relented in punishing the Israelites through the intercession of Moses (Numbers 14:20). God forgave Eliphaz, Beldad, and Sophar because of the prayers of Job who is a just man (Job 42:8). Secondly, that the saints are willing to help us is hardly a matter of contention. St Paul says: “Wherefore, I also, hearing of your faith that is in the Lord Jesus and of your love towards all the saints, cease not to give thanks for you, making commemoration of you in my prayers” (Ephesians 1:15-16). If the saints were so solicitous of our spiritual well-being while they like us were still sojourners here on earth now that they have finally reached their destination are we to suppose that they will forget their comrades here on earth? Far be it! For if charity moved them to pray for their brethren while they were still with the body now that they are with the Lord their charity is perfected thus they will be all the more concerned with our salvation (Hebrews 12:1). Thirdly, that the saints can hear our prayers may be difficult to some especially if we happen to think that their mode of existence is just like ours. Jesus has corrected this wrong notion of the afterlife for He says that the just shall be like the angels (Matthew 22:30). The saints possess a far greater knowledge than all our knowledge here below combined for while we only see dimly through a mirror they behold directly the divine essence in which there can be no darkness but only pure light (1 Corinthians 13:12; Revelations 22:5). If while still subject to the limitations of space and time God has given his prophets the vision to look into the future why should we think that He should give much less privilege now that they are transformed by God’s glory (1 John 3:2)?
I know I have not exhausted all there is to say on this pious practice of invoking the saints nor have I answered all the objections which may be put forward against it. However this can be a start to educating both Catholics and non-Catholics alike about what we Catholics believe and not the distorted views which will keep people in the dark for after all truth matters.