For a cradle Catholic, praying to the saints may be second nature. But for a convert? Or, perhaps a lapsed Catholic returning home after a long hiatus? Many, I would imagine, may be initially uncomfortable with this.
It’s one thing to understand the theology behind praying to the saints. It’s another thing to actually do it. So how do you start? Here’s a suggested guide, based, in part, on what has worked for me and what I believe makes the most sense for a beginner, especially one who comes from an evangelical Protestant background:
1. Start big and biblical—pray to Mary. Praying to Mary is an intensely biblical experience. When we say the Hail Mary we are praying through the words given to us by Scripture. The first line of this prayer, Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with Thee, is taken from the angel’s salutation to Mary in Luke. The next section of the prayer—Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus—is how Elizabeth greets Mary in the visitation. Praying through Scripture is a common evangelical Protestant practice, so it’s hard to argue with making a prayer out of these verses from Luke. This will open you spiritually to the whole idea of praying to the saints, and what better place to start than with the most honored saint in the Church?
If you’re now more comfortable with the idea of praying to other saints, skip ahead to step 3. If not try step 2:
2. Continue praying through the gospels with Mary. In other words, pray the rosary. But if that’s another devotional practice you’re not yet comfortable with, let’s cross one bridge at a time. For now, just follow the format outlined in the mysteries of the rosary, take one of the recommended Scripture passages, read, meditate, and pray through it. Then, as these are all passages where the Mother of God appears, ask Mary to help you understand the deeper meaning, to ponder what Jesus says in your heart, and to lead you closer to Him. This is a model for how to pray to the saints in general.
3. Pray to your guardian angel. The belief in guardian angels is one that is not unique to Catholicism—certainly Protestant denominations have historically been open to the idea that we each have guardian angels. This is strongly supported in Scripture, especially Matthew 18:10. If we have guardian angels watching over us, it’s common sense to ask for their help. (This is actually the first step recommended by Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin, click here to read the alternative program he lays out for learning how to pray to the saints, available at the bottom of his post.)
4. Pray to your patron saint. From the idea that we each have guardian angels, it’s not too much of a leap to pray to those saints for whom we are named and who it is entirely conceivable would have a special interest in our spiritual welfare. (If you’re not named after a saint and you’re going through RCIA, the giving out of confirmation names is no longer the standard practice in the US, but ask your priest or RCIA director if you can take one anyway.)
5. Pray the Litany of the Saints (and other litanies devoted to particular saints). Litanies are public prayers that can be used privately. One advantage of the litany is that its repetitiousness eliminates your tendency to wander and become self-conscious of what you are doing—perfect for anyone aiming to shed any lingering discomfort over praying to the saints. Starting with the Litany of the Saints itself is a great way to take that final step of actually praying directly to the saints. The prayer prayer begins with petitions that are addressed to God directly—which puts us in the right frame of mind for then approaching the saints in prayer.
Truly, any act of prayer, even if it is directly addressed to another person, like Mary, is always a reaching out of the heart to God (to paraphrase St. Therese of Lisieux). It’s something to keep in mind as you venture off into your new—and hopefully richer—prayer life.