The Invocation of the Saints, by Father Sydney F Smith, SJ

The Invocation of the Saints, by Father Sydney F Smith, SJAccording to the twenty-second of the Thirty-nine Anglican Articles, “the Romish doctrine concerning…Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the plain word of God.” Even this severe condemnation of a doctrine on which the Catholic Church sets special store, and in which her children find special consolation, treats us far more mildly than the popular verdict. To the mass of our countrymen who still cling to the Christian religion, we are people who commit the awful blasphemy of giving to others the worship due to God alone, and who imagine we can obtain our salvation through other channels than the sole mediatorship of Jesus Christ.

Living as Catholics do in the midst of neighbors, even well-intentioned neighbors, who entertain so bad an opinion of our cherished practice, we do well to understand on what grounds the lawfulness and usefulness of Prayers to the Saints is asserted, and how they are guiltless of the two blasphemies just mentioned.

The doctrine involves four points, (1) that the Saints reigning with Christ in heaven make assiduous intercessions for us their brethren still struggling below on earth; (2) that they are not without a particular knowledge of our wants and necessities; (3) that we may, therefore, lawfully and profitably invoke them; (4) and that we ought also to pay them a becoming religious honor and veneration. We will take each point separately, and so build up our defense.

• The Saints reigning with Christ make assiduous intercessions for us.

Holy Scripture tells us plainly that we ought to pray for our neighbors as well as for ourselves, and assures us that the earnest prayer of a good man, when offered up for some necessity of his fellow men, has great weight with God. (James 5:16-18) The Bible also gives us striking illustrations of the value and effect of intercessory prayers. The Children of Israel (Exodus 32:7) during their wanderings, whilst Moses was with God on the Mount, relapsed into grievous idolatry and in curred the Divine wrath.

God was then kept from destroying them, according to His own word, by the prayers of Moses. “And He said He would destroy them, had not Moses His elect stood before Him in the breach, in order that he might avert His anger lest it should destroy them.” (Psalm 15:23.) This one instance, to which others could easily be added, is enough to prove that at least whilst on earth we ought to pray for each other, and should attach special value to the prayer of those whose lives are marked by evident sanctity. Indeed, this is so clear that no one would contest it. If we are members one of another, and as members should abound in charity towards our fellow-members, manifestly our charity should include intercessory prayer among its primary works.

Now, if on earth intercessory prayer is so natural an outcome of Christian charity, and is, therefore, so acceptable to God, are we to think that it perishes in the tomb? Surely not. The soul itself of the Saint survives the tomb and passes to the throne of God. We cannot imagine that with its mortal coil it casts off all interest in those whom it has known and loved on earth. We cannot suppose that if it retains its interest, it will fail to assert that interest in prayers, just as it was wont to do on earth. Rather, we cannot but think that with the deeper realization of what it is to save the soul, and of God’s readiness to hear prayer, the interest in those still fighting for their crown will grow in the heart of the glorified Saint, and along with it the earnestness of his prayers.

“If,” says Saint Jerome in the fourth century, “Apostles and martyrs, whilst still in the flesh and still needing to care for themselves, can pray for others, how much more [will they pray for others] after they have won their crowns, their victories, their triumphs! Moses, a single man, obtains God’s pardon for 600,000 armed men, and Stephen prays for his persecutors. When they are with Christ will they be less powerful? Paul says that two hundred and seventy-six souls were granted to his prayers when they were in the ship with him, and when he is dead, shall he close his lips and not mutter a syllable for those who throughout the world have believed in his Gospel?”

We must also bear in mind that besides Saints there are angels in heaven: beings, that is to say, who, although different in nature from men, are bound to them by fraternal ties and share with the Saints their interest in our lot. These angels have unquestionably the right to plead for the earthly objects of their solicitude, for our Lord said, “See that ye scandalize not one of these little ones: for their angels see the face of My Father Who is in heaven” (Matthew 18:10); in other words, “remember that, though weak in themselves, these children have powerful angels to intercede for them in heaven.” The text talks of intercession for children, as our Lord was inculcating the sacred duty of respect for the consciences of children. But we cannot suppose that, if angels intercede at all, they are restricted to intercession for children only. If, then, God can desire the angels to pray for men on earth and can be much moved by their prayers, what possible ground could he have for denying a like privilege to the Saints? Indeed, if there were ground for making a difference between them, would it not be more natural to deny the right to the angels and allow it to the Saints, seeing that the latter are bound to us by the ties of a nature common in every respect?

• The Saints are not without a particular knowledge of our wants and necessities.

A Protestant is wont to lay great stress upon this point. He usually cannot well help granting that the Saints in heaven intercede for us in a general way, and that they even pray more particularly for the friends and the companions of their previous life. Nevertheless, he is confident that from the moment of death further knowledge of what happens on earth must stop.

Now is this at all likely? Even if we could form no conception of the manner in which, in their new mode of existence, further knowledge could be conveyed to their minds, do we not perceive the truth of certain facts from which the inference seems at once to follow that some means of communication is provided? These facts are: (1) that the Saints must have a very strong and reasonable desire to know further about us, just be cause of their earnest desire to assist us with their prayers; (2) that God has the power to grant their desire. That the Saints have this desire has been sufficiently established, and if they have it, and God, the God of love, has the power to grant it, the certain inference would seem to be that He does grant it.

Why should he refuse so reasonable a desire? This question was asked just now, when the point was whether the Saints could be permitted to intercede at all. If there seemed no conceivable ground for refusal on the part of God then, still less can we divine any possible ground of refusal now. If it is right for the Saints to interceded for us at all, it would certainly seem right that their intercessions should not be of a vague kind, but should be directed to our actual and known wants.

But has God the power to grant to the Saints this their desire of knowing our particular wants? Yes, certainly. To begin with, what is to prevent God from Himself revealing to them our wants? No one will be so absurd as to deny God the power of communicating knowledge to the spirits of the departed; but perhaps it might be thought an absurdity that God should tell the Saints of our wants that they may ask Him to relieve them instead of at once granting or denying the favor. There would, however, be nothing incongruous in this. We do not imagine the intercession of the Saints to be necessary in order to inform God of what He would otherwise be ignorant of, but as offering to God a further motive for showing mercy to us, in addition to that arising out of our own direct prayer to Him, and thus supplying for our unworthiness. The principle on which we rely is exactly that recognized in the Book of Job, (42:8) where God says, “Go to My servant Job, and offer up a holocaust for yourselves: and My servant Job shall pray for you: for him I will accept, lest I deal with you according to your folly.”

And if it is unreasonable to deny that God can at least make known to the Saints what we need, it is hardly less unreasonable to deny that He can and does communicate to them some inherent faculty of perception. The angels, since they are intelligent beings, have presumably some faculty of acquiring knowledge for themselves, just as we have on earth. Is it conceivable that the soul in its separate state should be without a similar power? Many Catholic theologians have thought they could perceive the nature of this faculty. The blessed enjoy the Beatific Vision. They see God “as he is” (I John 3:2) in Himself; no longer “in a glass and darkly,” but “face to face.” (I Corinthians 3:12) May it not be that in seeing God, they see in God, the pattern of all being, as in a mirror what goes on below?

This, however, is an abstruse doctrine, which is only mentioned as it may interest some readers. It is in no sense necessary to make good the defence of our doctrine about the Saints. We have given ample reason for holding that the Saints do in fact attain to a knowledge of our prayers, and are bound to demonstrate the exact mode of their knowledge.

We may also press again at this point the parallelism between the Saints and the angels. In the text quoted above, (Matthew 18:10) our Lord’s argument with the disciples, is “Do not scandalize these little ones, for if you do their angels are sure to perceive your evil deed, and will ask God to punish it.” This proves that at all events the prayers of the angels are guided by particular knowledge of what is happening to their earthly charges. Unless then some positive Divine statement to the contrary can be produced, or some manifest reason to the same effect, we ought to conclude that a like knowledge of earthly events to stimulate their prayers is granted to the Saints.

• We may lawfully and profitably lay our necessities before the Saints in heaven and solicit their prayers.

We have now obtained good grounds for believing that the Saints are ready to pray for us, that their prayers are acceptable and powerful with God, and that they can hear us when we ask.

After this it seems superfluous to prove by any special argument that we are justified in invoking them. On earth the practice of offering intercessory prayer has its correlative in the practice of asking it.

Even Apostles do not hesitate to ask the intercession of their flock: “I beseech you, brethren,” says Saint Paul, (Romans 15:30) “for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake and for the love of the Spirit, that you strive together with me in prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea.” Why may we not with a like or even a greater confidence address these self-same words to Saint Paul in heaven, and ask him, for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ of the Holy Spirit, to add his powerful prayers to ours, that we may be delivered from our dangers on earth?

• The Invocation of the Saints is sanctioned by the authority of the Church and by primitive practice.

We have set down a fourth point as included in the Catholic doctrine we are considering. But it will be more convenient to take it presently. Hitherto we have confined ourselves to expounding the doctrine and showing its reasonableness. Even on this basis we should be entitled to pray to the Saints, for it suffices to show that there is no impropriety in the practice, but on the contrary a reasonable expectation of spiritual profit. Nevertheless it is fair to demand of us that we should show authorization on the part of God for what we do.

There is not much, if anything, in Holy Scripture which amounts to a direct authorization, although we have seen that Holy Scripture lays down the principles from which it is legitimately inferred. If the Protestant doctrine of the all-sufficiency of Scripture were true, the absence of direct scriptural injunction to invoke the Saints would tell against us. But the all-sufficiency of Scripture is itself “a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the plain word of God.”

The authority of the Catholic Church, ever studious of God’s honor and of sound doctrine, is ample warrant for a Catholic devotion, and this voice of the Church reveals itself alike in her solemn definitions, in the practice of her Saints, and in the testimony of her Fathers. It would be impossible in so short a Tract to give many passages in support of this statement. It must suffice to cite one or two. Thus, Saint Chrysostom has a sermon on Saints Berenice and Prosdoce, two martyrs, in which he says, “Not only on this their festival, but also at other times, let us approach them, pray to them, invite them to be our patrons. They appeal to God with great confidence, not only whilst alive, but even after death, nay much more after death. For now they bear the marks (stigmata) of Christ, and whilst they display these marks there is nothing they cannot persuade our (heavenly) King.”

Saint Gregory of Nyssa, in his Homily on Saint Theodore, prays to this martyr, and says to him, “If there be need of greater importunity, assemble the choir of thy brother martyrs and implore with all. Remind Peter: arouse Paul: John, too, the theologian and beloved disciple; that they have a care for the churches they established.” Saint Ambrose in his treatise De Viauzs, says, “Angels are to be besought for us, who were given to us as guardians: martyrs are to be besought, whose patronage we seem to claim for ourselves by the pledge of the body… Let us not be ashamed to employ them as intercessors for our infirmity, who knew the infirmity of the body even when they overcame.” Saint Jerome in his hundred and eighth letter to Eustochium, prays to Saint Paula, saying, “Farewell, Paula, help with thy prayers the extreme old age of thy worshipper (oultoris). Faith and good works join thee with Christ. Being in His presence thou wilt more easily obtain what thou askest.”

Saint Augustine writing On the Love of the Dead, says that he can see no purpose in burying others near the shrines of the Saints, save that while the living” remember where the remains of their friends are laid, they may recommend them to the same Saints as to their patrons.” These five Fathers will be recognized as among the very foremost of the Fathers of the fourth century; that is, the age when, the persecution over, the Church first began to develop a copious literature. And their language is distinct and free from hesitation, the language of those who are not hazarding a novel opinion of their own, but are expressing the inherited and unquestioned faith of all.

• Objeotions taken by Protestants to the Invocation of Saints.

We have not as yet noticed the usual Protestant objections to the Invocation of Saints, as it seemed better first to consider the doctrine on its own merits. These objections, though variously stated, are reducible to the three following heads:

(a) The doctrine is against our Lord’s special prerogative. He is the one Mediator according to Saint Paul, (I Timothy 2:5) “for there is one God, and mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.”

This we know is considered to be a singularly conclusively condemnation of prayer to the Saints. For when we ask a Saint to be our intercessor, do we not make him into a mediator between God and ourselves?

Unquestionably we do in some sense. But in what sense? There is a famous phrase of Lord Bacon’s, that “words are the fool’s coins and the wise man’s counters.” He means to say, that foolish people are led by words just as they stand, whereas wise people always ask carefully what precise meaning is attached to words by the particular speaker who uses them at the time. Thus we are told that there is but “One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, One God and Father of us all” (Ephesians 4:5); and (Matthew 23:8,9) we have even a command forbidding us to be called Rabbi (i.e., Master), “for one is your master, even Christ: and (to) call no man your father upon the earth; for one is your Father, which is in heaven.”

And yet we do – that is, all sensible people do – apply these names of “Lord,” “Master,” “Father,” to others beside God; for we understand well that the prohibition is directed not against the bare words, but against a certain meaning of them. None can be to us Lord, Master, or Father in the full sense in which God is our Lord, our Master, and our Father. And so in like manner no one can be our mediator in the full sense in which our Lord is such; and yet others may be our mediators in a lesser sense, as, indeed, Moses is so called in Holy Scripture itself. (Galatians 3:19) Our Lord is our Mediator, inasmuch as He redeemed us by His Precious Blood, as Saint Paul says in the very place quoted against us, “Who gave Himself to be a ransom for all.”

Except in virtue of this ransom we could have no hope of reconciliation with God. And now that our risen Lord stands before His Father’s throne, ever living to make intercession for us, the nature of His intercession corresponds with the nature of His redemption. He does not plead in our behalf the merits of another: He claims as of His own right, in virtue of His own merits, that God should hear Him on our behalf. The Saints, on the other hand, though they add their prayers to ours, and though their prayers are specially acceptable to God in view of their holiness, plead for us ever through the merits of Jesus Christ. Our doctrine, therefore, in no sense conflicts with the sole mediatorship of our Lord.

It is further observable that if it did, it would conflict, not because it encourages us to ask the intercession of the Saints and angels, but because it presupposes that Saints and angels do intercede for us in heaven, and similarly that Christians may intercede for one another on earth. Protestants, therefore, who take scandal at our prayers to Saints, on the ground that they set up other mediators by the side of our Lord, should in consistency take similar scandal at their own prayers for each other.

(b) Our doctrine is said to presuppose in the Saints omniscience and omnipotence, two attributes which cannot without blasphemy be ascribed to any creature whatever. The idea is that the Saints could not know of so many prayers arising from the lips of so many suppliants without possessing a practical omniscience; whilst to be able to grant all their prayers would involve a practical omnipotence. But this objection is easily set aside, when we remember, first, that the power we ascribe to the Saints is that of intercession only, not of direct help, of asking God to use His power on our behalf, not of exerting power inherent in the Saint himself; and, secondly, the ability to know of our prayers falls a long way short of omniscience, and even a long way short of the intuitive knowledge of God, which the Saints certainly possess, since they enjoy the Beatific Vision.

(c) The Catholic doctrine is said to imply that the sinner, in view of his sins, has not the right of direct approach to our Lord in prayer; whereas the Bible would have us feel that, however sinful we may be, we can at all times with boldness approach God through Christ. But we are far from denying this universal right of free approach to God through Christ. On the contrary, the Catholic Church is ever insisting on it. What we do say is that, whilst we approach God through Christ directly in our prayers, we do well to take with us and add to our own the intercessions of others.

A parent might justly be angry with an erring son for not approaching him directly with a prayer for reconciliation, but sending another brother to take his place whilst he remained absent. Does it follow that the parent would be angry if the erring son did come and ask himself, but brought along with him the brother to ask in addition, and this even if the guilty one came to say, “I know my behavior has been too outrageous; still, have regard to the fidelity of my brother, and for his sake for give me?” In any case, here again, the charge against our invocation of the Saints in heaven, tells as much and as little against seeking the prayers of our brethren on earth.

• We ought to show the Saints a becoming honor and veneration.

A fourth objection usually taken to the practice of invoking the Saints, leads us to the fourth point set down at the commencement of this tract as involved in the Catholic doctrine. Your defense, say Protestants, might pass if all you did was to ask the prayers of the Saints in the same way in which you ask the prayers of others on earth. But who could think of going down on his knees to a brother on earth, singing hymns to him and burning incense before him, when wishing to obtain from his charity a promise of prayers?

It is quite true that as soon as the question be comes one not of merely invoking but of also venerating the Saints, there is a difference between our treatment of them and our brethren on earth.

The veneration of Saints is, however, also rational. In another tract, On the Use of Holy Images, it has been shown that it is in accordance with nature to venerate the crucifix on account of its relation to Him whom it represents. In the same manner the Saints are intimately connected with our Lord. They are Saints through their participation of His gifts, His gifts of grace and glory. And we feel, therefore, it is only becoming that we should revere them as the holders of these gifts, and revere them with a veneration which is religious in its character; though, of course, widely differing from the religious veneration, the supreme worship, which we pray to God Himself.

Catholics have among themselves the custom of showing veneration for their priests, particularly for bishops and popes; and in the sanctuary this veneration takes the form of religious ceremony. Yet no rational persons would suppose, when they see us incense the celebrating priests and others in the mass or genuflect before a bishop, that we are offering them divine honors. The veneration takes a religious form because these priests and bishops are set in authority over us by God—in other words, are clothed with some participation of His authority in the religious sphere. For similar reasons when a Saint appears amongst men, although out of respect for his humility we might try to repress external manifestations of our feelings, we should instinctively feel a reverence for him, religious in its nature, and struggling to find religious expression. Many non-Catholic readers will have similar feelings in regard to these two cases. If others do not, they may come to realize our state of mind by pondering over the following thought.

If an angel were to appear to one of them, as Gabriel did to our Blessed Lady, would they treat him and address him as an equal, or would they not rather feel constrained to show him reverence and bow their heads before him; feel too, that the veneration they were showing was religious, not secular; of the kind proper to the sanctuary, not to the palace? And if to an angel why not also to a Saint; and if to a Saint or angel descending on earth and made visible to human eyes, why not also to one remaining in heaven and visible only to the eyes of faith?