Faith of Our Fathers, Chapter 13 – The Invocation of Saints

photograph of Cardinal James Gibbons taken no later than 1915, location and photographer unknown; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsChristians of most denominations are accustomed to recite the following article contained in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the communion of Saints.” There are many, I fear, who have these words frequently on their lips, without an adequate knowledge of the precious meaning which they convey.

The true and obvious sense of the words quoted from the Creed is, that between the children of God, whether reigning in heaven or sojourning on earth, there exists an intercommunion, or spiritual communication by prayer; and, consequently, that our friends who have entered into their rest are mindful of us in their petitions to God.

In the exposition of her Creed the Catholic Church weighs her words in the scales of the sanctuary with as much precision as a banker weighs his gold. With regard to the Invocation of Saints the Church simply declares that it is “useful and salutary” to ask their prayers. There are expressions addressed to the Saints in some popular books of devotion which, to critical readers, may seem extravagant. But they are only the warm language of affection and poetry, to be regulated by our standard of faith; and notice that all the prayers of the Church end with the formula: “Through our Lord Jesus Christ,” sufficiently indicating her belief that Christ is the Mediator of salvation. A heart tenderly attached to the Saints will give vent to its feelings in the language of hyperbole, just as an enthusiastic lover will call his future bride his adorable queen, without any intention of worshiping her as a goddess. This reflection should be borne in mind while reading such passages.

I might easily show, by voluminous quotations from ecclesiastical writers of the first ages of the Church, how conformable to the teaching of antiquity is the Catholic practice of invoking the intercession of the Saints. But as you, dear reader, may not be disposed to attach adequate importance to the writings of the Fathers, I shall confine myself to the testimony of Holy Scripture.

You will readily admit that it is a salutary custom to ask the prayers of the blessed in heaven, provided you have no doubt that they can hear your prayers, and that they have the power and the will to assist you. Now the Scriptures amply demonstrate the knowledge, the influence and the love of the Saints in our regard.

First – It would be a great mistake to suppose that the Angels and Saints reigning with God see and hear in the same manner that we see and hear on earth, or that knowledge is communicated to them as it is communicated to us. While we are confined in the prison of the body, we see only with our eyes and hear with our ears; hence our faculties of vision and hearing are very limited. Compared with the heavenly inhabitants, we are like a man in a darksome cell through which a dim ray of light penetrates. He observes but few objects, and these very obscurely. But as soon as our soul is freed from the body, soaring heavenward like a bird released from its cage, its vision is at once marvelously enlarged. It requires neither eyes to see nor ears to hear, but beholds all things in God as in a mirror. “We now,” says the Apostle, “see through a glass darkly; but then face to face. Now, I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known.” In our day we know what wonderful facility we have in communicating with our friends at a distance. A message to Berlin or Rome with the answer, which a century ago would require sixty days in transmission, can now be accomplished in sixty minutes.

I can hold a conversation with an acquaintance in San Francisco, three thousand miles away, and can talk to him as easily and expeditiously as if he were closeted with me here in Baltimore.

Nay more, we can distinctly recognize one another by the sound of our voice.

If a scientist had predicted such events, a hundred years past, he would be regarded as demented. And yet he would not be a visionary, but a prophet.

Let us not be unwise in measuring Divine power by our finite reason.

If such revelations are made in the natural order, what may we not expect in the supernatural world? If science gives us such rapid and easy means of corresponding with our fellow beings on foreign shores, what methods may not the God of Sciences employ to enable us to communicate with our brethren on the shores of eternity?

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

That the spirits of the just in heaven are clearly conversant with our affairs on earth is manifest from the following passages of Holy Writ. The venerable Patriarch Jacob, when on his deathbed, prayed thus for his two grandchildren: “May the angel that delivereth me from all evils bless these boys!” Here we see a holy Patriarch – one singularly favored by Almighty God, and enlightened by many supernatural visions, the father of Jehovah’s chosen people – asking the angel in heaven to obtain a blessing for his grandchildren. And surely we cannot suppose that he would be so ignorant as to pray to one that could not hear him.

The angel Raphael, after having disclosed himself to Tobias, said to him: “When thou didst pray with tears, and didst bury the dead, and didst leave thy dinner, I offered thy prayer to the Lord.” How could the angel, if he were ignorant of these petitions, have presented to God the prayers of Tobias?

To pass from the Old to the New Testament, our Savior declares that “there shall be joy before the angels of God upon one sinner doing penance.” Then the angels are glad whenever you repent of your sins. Now, what is repentance? It is a change of heart. It is an interior operation of the will. The saints, therefore, are acquainted – we know not how – not only with your actions and words, but even with your very thoughts.

And when Saint Paul says that “we are made a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men,” what does he mean, unless that as our actions are seen by men even so they are visible to the angels in heaven?

The examples I have quoted refer, it is true, to the angels. But our Lord declares that the saints in heaven shall be like the angelic spirits, by possessing the same knowledge, enjoying the same happiness.

We read in the Gospel that Dives, while suffering in the place of the reprobates, earnestly besought Abraham to cool his burning thirst. And Abraham, in his abode of rest after death, was able to listen and reply to him. Now, if communication could exist between the souls of the just and of the reprobate, how much easier is it to suppose that interchange of thought can exist between the saints in heaven and their brethren on earth?

These few instances are sufficient to convince you that the spirits in heaven hear our prayers.

Second – We have, also, abundant testimony from Scripture to show that the saints assist us by their prayers. Almighty God threatened the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrha with utter destruction on account of their crimes and abominations. Abraham interposes in their behalf and, in response to his prayer, God consents to spare those cities if only ten just men are found therein. Here the avenging hand of God is suspended and the fire of His wrath withheld, through the efficacy of the prayers of a single man.

We read in the Book of Exodus that when the Amalekites were about to wage war on the children of Israel Moses, the great servant and Prophet of the Lord, went upon a mountain to pray for the success of his people; and the Scriptures inform us that whenever Moses raised his hands in prayer the Israelites were victorious, but when he ceased to pray Amalek conquered. Could the power of intercessory prayer be manifested in a more striking manner? The silent prayer of Moses on the mountain was more formidable to the Amalekites than the sword of Josue and his armed hosts fighting in the valley.

When the same Hebrew people were banished from their native country and carried into exile in Babylon, so great was their confidence in the prayers of their brethren in Jerusalem that they sent them the following message, together with a sum of money, that sacrifice might be offered up for them in the holy city: “Pray ye for us to the Lord our God, for we have sinned against the Lord our God.”

When the friends of Job had excited the indignation of the Almighty in consequence of their vain speech, God, instead of directly granting them the pardon which they sought, commanded them to invoke the intercession of Job: “Go,” He says, “to My servant Job and offer for yourselves a holocaust, and My servant Job will pray for you and his face will I accept.” Nor did they appeal to Job in vain; for, “the Lord was turned at the penance of Job when he prayed for his friends.” In this instance we not only see the value of intercessory prayer, but we find God sanctioning it by His own authority.

But of all the sacred writers there is none that reposes greater confidence in the prayers of his brethren than Saint Paul, although no one had a better knowledge than he of the infinite merits of our Savior’s Passion, and no one could have more endeared himself to God by his personal labors. In his Epistles Saint Paul repeatedly asks for himself the prayers of his disciples. If he wishes to be delivered from the hands of the unbelievers of Judea, and his ministry to be successful in Jerusalem, he asks the Romans to obtain these favors for him. If he desires the grace of preaching with profit the Gospel to the Gentiles, he invokes the intercession of the Ephesians.

Nay, is it not a common practice among ourselves, and even among our dissenting brethren, to ask the prayers of one another? When a father is about to leave his house on a long journey the instinct of piety prompts him to say to his wife and children: “Remember me in your prayers.”

Now I ask you, if our friends, though sinners, can aid us by their prayers, why cannot our friends, the saints of God, be able to assist us also? If Abraham and Moses and Job exercised so much influence with the Almighty while they lived in the flesh, is their power with God diminished now that they reign with Him in heaven?

We are moved by the children of Israel sending their pious petitions to their brethren in Jerusalem. They recalled to mind, no doubt, what the Lord said to Solomon after he had completed the temple: “My eyes shall be open and My ears attentive to the prayer of him that shall pray in this place.” If the supplications of those that prayed in the earthly Jerusalem were so efficacious, what will God refuse to those who pray to Him face to face in the heavenly Jerusalem?

Third – But you will ask, are the saints in heaven so interested in our welfare as to be mindful of us in their prayers? Or, are they so much absorbed in the contemplation of God, and in the enjoyment of celestial bliss, as to be altogether regardless of their friends on earth? Far from us the suspicion that the saints reigning with God ever forget us. In heaven, charity is triumphant. And how can the saints have love, and yet be unmindful of their brethren on earth? If they have one desire greater than another, it is to see us one day wearing the crowns that await us in heaven. If they were capable of experiencing sorrow, their grief would spring from the consideration that we do not always walk in their footsteps here, so as to make sure our election to eternal glory hereafter.

The Hebrew people believed, like us, that the saints after death were occupied in praying for us. We read in the Book of Maccabees that Judas Maccabeus, the night before he engaged in battle with the army of the impious Nicanor, had a supernatural dream, or vision, in which he beheld Onias, the High-Priest, and the prophet Jeremiah, both of whom had been long dead. Onias appeared to him with outstretched arms, praying for the people of God. Pointing to Jeremiah, he said to Judas Maccabeus: “This is a lover of his brethren and the people of Israel. This is he that prayeth much for the people and for all the holy city, Jeremiah, the Prophet of God.” Then Jeremiah, as is related in the sequel of the vision, handed a sword to Judas, with which the prophet predicted that Judas would conquer his enemies. The soldiers, animated by the relation of Judas, fought with invincible courage and overcame the enemy. The Book of Maccabees, though not admitted by our dissenting brethren to be inspired, must, at least, be acknowledged by them to be a faithful historical record. It is manifest, therefore, from this narrative that the Hebrew people believed that the saints in heaven pray for their brethren on earth.

Saint John in his Revelation describes the Saints before the throne of God praying for their earthly brethren: “The four and twenty ancients fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps and golden vials full of odors, which are the prayers of the saints.”

The prophet Zachariah records a prayer that was offered by the angel for the people of God, and the favorable answer which came from heaven: “How long, O Lord, wilt Thou not have mercy on Jerusalem, and on the cities of Juda, with which Thou hast been angry?… And the Lord answered the angel … good words, comfortable words.”

Nor can we be surprised to learn that the angels labor for our salvation, since we are told by Saint Peter that “the devil goeth about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour;” for, if hate impels the demons to ruin us, surely love must inspire the angels to help us in securing the crown of glory. And if the angels, though of a different nature from ours, are so mindful of us, how much more interest do the saints manifest in our welfare, who are bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh?

To ask the prayers of our brethren in heaven is not only conformable to Holy Scripture, but is prompted by the instincts of our nature. The Catholic doctrine of the Communion of Saints robs death of its terrors, while the Reformers of the sixteenth century, in denying the Communion of Saints, not only inflicted a deadly wound on the Creed, but also severed the tenderest chords of the human heart. They broke asunder the holy ties that unite earth with heaven – the soul in the flesh with the soul released from the flesh. If my brother leaves me to cross the seas I believe that he continues to pray for me. And when he crosses the narrow sea of death and lands on the shores of eternity, why should he not pray for me still? What does death destroy? The body. The soul still lives and moves and has its being. It thinks and wills and remembers and loves. The dross of sin and selfishness and hatred are burned by the salutary fires of contrition, and nothing remains but the pure gold of charity.

O far be from us the dreary thought that death cuts off our friends entirely from us! Far be from us the heartless creed which declares a perpetual divorce between us and the just in heaven! Do not imagine when you lose a father or mother, a tender sister or brother, who die in the peace of Christ, that they are forgetful of you. The love they bore you on earth is purified and intensified in heaven. Or if your innocent child, regenerated in the waters of baptism, is snatched from you by death, be assured that, though separated from you in body, that child is with you in spirit and is repaying you a thousand-fold for the natural life it received from you. Be convinced that the golden link of prayer binds you to that angelic infant, and that it is continually offering its fervent petitions at the throne of God for you, that you may both be reunited in heaven. But I hear men cry out with Pharisaical assurance, “You dishonor God, sir, in praying to the saints. You make void the mediatorship of Jesus Christ. You put the creature above the Creator.” How utterly groundless is this objection! We do not dishonor God in praying to the saints. We should, indeed, dishonor Him if we consulted the saints independently of God. But such is not our practice. The Catholic Church teaches, on the contrary, that God alone is the Giver of all good gifts; that He is the Source of all blessings, the Fountain of all goodness. She teaches that whatever happiness or glory or influence the saints possess, all comes from God. As the moon borrows her light from the sun, so do the blessed borrow their light from Jesus, “the Sun of Justice, the one Mediator (of redemption) of God and men.” Hence, when we address the saints, we beg them to pray for us through the merits of Jesus Christ, while we ask Jesus to help up through His own merits.

But what is the use of praying to the saints, since God can hear us. If it is vain and useless to pray to the saints because God can hear us, then Jacob was wrong in praying to the angel; the friends of Job were wrong in asking him to pray for them, though God commanded them to invoke Job’s intercession; the Jews exiled in Babylon were wrong in asking their brethren in Jerusalem to pray for them; Saint Paul was wrong in beseeching his friends to pray for him; then we are all wrong in praying for each other. You deem it useful and pious to ask your pastor to pray for you. Is it not, at least, equally useful for me to invoke the prayers of Saint Paul, since I am convinced that he can hear me?

God forbid that our supplications to our Father in heaven should diminish in proportion as our prayers to the Saints increase; for, after all, we must remember that, while the Church declares it necessary for salvation to pray to God, she merely asserts that it is “good and useful to invoke the saints.” To ask the prayers of the saints, far from being useless, is most profitable. By invoking their intercession, instead of one we have many praying for us. To our own tepid petitions we unite the fervent supplications of the blessed and “the Lord will hear the prayers of the just.” To the petitions of us, poor pilgrims in this vale of tears, are united those of the citizens of heaven. We ask them to pray to their God and to our God, to their Father and to our Father, that we may one day share their delights in that blessed country in company with our common Redeemer, Jesus Christ, with whom to live is to reign.

– text taken from The Faith of Our Fathers, Being a Plain Exposition and Vindication of the Church Founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ, by Cardinal James Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, 1917