Externals of the Catholic Church – The Invocation of Saints

Those who are hostile to our religion, whether through prejudice or ignorance, have several allegations which they bring up regularly concerning the “superstitions of Romanism” and the “idolatrous practices” with which Papists have overlaid the true doctrines of Christianity.

It avails little to answer these charges – to set forth the Catholic teaching and to refute the untruthful exposition of it. Those who make the statements, either do not see the refutation or do not care to notice it. Catholic writers will painstakingly explain the doctrines of the Church and will give a thorough and logical answer to the unjust charges of those who criticise her – and the next “learned author” will blandly reiterate the calumny as if it never had been or could be refuted.

The dogmas and practices of our Church are not hidden things. They may be found clearly set forth in hundreds of easily accessible books – in the elementary catechism and in the popular explanations of Catholic belief as well as in the works of learned theologians. Why is it, then, we wonder, that the literary genius who contributes to our current magazines does not prepare himself for his task by trying to ascertain precisely what the Catholic Church teaches before he attempts to criticise her teachings or to write a description of her rites and ceremonies? Why is it that the great minds that are called upon, as infallible authorities, to explain matters Catholic for certain encyclopedias do not first acquire a definite and accurate idea of their subject? Why is it, again, that hardly a minister of religion can be found in the churches of our separated brethren who can give a clear and truthful statement of the Catholic beliefs and practices which he unsparingly condemns in his Sunday sermon? It would seem reasonable to expect that a man who poses as an expert in any particular line would not fall into gross errors every time that he writes or speaks about his specialty.

Do Catholics Adore Saints?

In hardly any one point have Catholics been so persistently misrepresented as in the matter of the invocation of saints. The “benighted adherents of Rome adore the Virgin,” they “pay divine homage to creatures,” they “pray for mercy to mere men and women, and give them the adoration which should be given to God alone.” From the time of Julian the Apostate the same old calumnies have been repeated, and refuted, and repeated again. How strange it is that we, who are “adherents of Rome,” are so utterly “benighted” that we have never realized that we were taking part in this false worship! How strange that there is no mention of it in the writings of our Catholic authors for nineteen centuries!

The Church and the Saints

What does the Catholic Church believe and teach and practise concerning the Saints?

That Church has been in existence nearly nineteen hundred years. It has on its list of known saints many thousands of names – men and women whom it honors, to whom, indeed, it pays real religious homage. But never in its history has it adored any one but God. It does not adore, and never can or will adore the Blessed Virgin, for it recognizes and has always taught that she is a creature of God, and nothing more than a creature. She is a glorified human soul, more perfect and more lovable than any other save the human soul of her Son; she is worthy of the highest place and the most exalted honor that a creature can attain to in heaven, for through God’s choosing of her for the destiny of being His Mother, through the abundance of graces which He bestowed upon her, and through her fidelity in corresponding with these graces, she has reached a degree of glory which places her higher than God’s angels or His other saints – but she remains a creature. She is not divine. She is not in any sense a goddess. She is infinitely inferior to God. The honor which the Catholic Church pays to her is altogether of a different nature from that which is rendered to God. He is adored as the Creator and Supreme Ruler of all things; she is venerated as a Saint of God and the greatest of Saints – as our most powerful intercessor before His throne.

And what the Church holds and teaches concerning her is precisely what she holds and teaches concerning the saints of lesser degree. They are chosen friends of God; they are souls which have served Him well and have thereby won their heavenly reward. They are deserving of our homage because of their holiness; and, as they are still members of God’s Church, they are united to us in what we call the “Communion of Saints.” We honor them, and they pray for us; but neither they nor the Blessed Virgin Mary can give us any grace or show us any mercy. They can simply present our prayers to the Almighty and unite them to their own; and we honor them with religious homage, that thereby we may obtain the assistance of those friends of God who stand before His throne.

Adoration to God, Veneration to Saints

The Catholic Church, then, makes a complete and clear distinction between the supreme worship which we give to God alone and the relative and inferior homage which we pay to the Saints. Some of the confusion in the minds of non-Catholics may arise from the fact that the Catholic authors who wrote in Latin used the word “cultus” to denote both kinds of religious homage, and that we have no one word in English which will express the meaning of this word except “worship.” But these Catholic authors always distinguished emphatically between the “cultus duliae,” which we may translate “the homage of veneration,” and the “cultus latriae,” which signifies “the worship of adoration.”

Veneration is paid to the Saints; a higher form of it, called “hyperdulia,” is given to the Queen of Saints; but adoration is given to no one but God. Any attempt to give it to a creature would certainly be false worship – but the Catholic Church has never given it. She adores God and God only. She venerates His Saints with religious homage.

The Communion of Saints

Is it reasonable to suppose that the Saints can aid us? Why not? We who are here upon earth in the membership of Christ’s Church are urged to pray for one another. We are told that we should go to God with the wants of others as well as with our own. Now, it is hard to see a reason why souls that are with God, that are enjoying everlasting happiness, should cease to exercise Christian charity, and should be unable or unwilling to intercede for their brethren.

What do the Scriptures teach us – the Sacred Word of God to which our separated brethren appeal so constantly as the one “rule of faith”? In Saint John’s Apocalyptic vision, he saw the elders “prostrate before the Lamb, having each . . . golden vials, which are the prayers of the saints.” It matters not whether the “saints” were on earth or in heaven; in either case their prayers are offered to God by those before His throne.

An Ancient Belief

The belief in the intercessory power of the Saints is as old as the Church. It is alluded to in authentic writings, such as the “Acts of the Martyrs,” in the second and third centuries. They are represented as interceding after death for the faithful upon earth. “In heaven,” said the martyr Theodotus before his torments began, “I will pray for you to God.”

And this Catholic doctrine is clearly set forth in the writings of the earlier Fathers of the Church. Origen, among others, tells us that “all the Saints that have departed this life care for the salvation of those who are in the world and help them by their prayers and mediation.”

How the Saints Hear Us

If the Saints of God have the power of interceding for us, it is certain that we must have communication with them, that they may be able to know our needs. We may be sure that God makes the “Communion of Saints” perfect on both sides – that we, members of His Church on earth, are able to speak to the members of that Church in Heaven, so that they may speak for us to Him. How is this effected? We do not know. Catholic theologians and spiritual writers have speculated about it, but we have no certainty as to the exact means which God provides for this communication. Some have supposed that the Almighty allows those who are in His presence to see in Him “as in a mirror” all that concerns them about earthly things. At any rate, the knowledge which they have and the petitions which they may receive from, us depend entirely upon God’s goodness – and beyond that fact our weak human intellect cannot go.

Our Faith Regarding the Saints

We Catholics, then, adore God alone. He is our Creator, our Redeemer, our hope here and hereafter. We believe that in heaven we have a host of friends. We believe that these friends are also friends of our Blessed Lord – that one of them is His Mother, loved by Him so dearly that He will grant her every prayer – that one is His foster-father, whom He reverenced upon earth and loves in heaven – that the others are His loyal servants who possess Him now and forever. We believe that all this “great multitude which no man can number” is a component part of God’s Church, and is united in bonds of charity with the other parts of that Church on earth and in Purgatory. We believe, therefore, that we should honor them because God has honored them; that we should pay religious veneration to them collectively and separately. And we believe also that they can and do intercede for us, that they hear our prayers and present them to Him Who loves them and us. When we offer homage to them, when we build churches and institute festival days in their honor, are we depriving God of adoration? No; we are adoring Him all the more, because we are honoring the results of His infinite graces, which have been the sole means of making these men and women Saints of God.