Prayer to the saints remains one of the enduring sticking points in Catholic-Protestant dialogues.
As always, from the Catholic side, a disclaimer is in order: We do not need something to be in the Bible in order for us to necessarily have as part of our faith or practice. The word Trinity is not in the Bible yet it is at the core of our faith. That Jesus is one in being with the Father is equally essential to the creed yet again the vocabulary we use to profess this is not directly biblical.
That said, the biblical evidence for prayer to the saints is stronger than many realize. Some great work on this front has been done by Alan Schreck in Catholic and Christian and also by apologist Dave Armstrong, most recently in an incisive blog post over at the National Catholic Register. I added my own thoughts to this discussion in one of my earliest pieces for Catholic Exchange here.
But much of the evidence that has been marshaled to date supports the practice of venerating the saints or believing that they pray or intercede for us. For example, it’s hard not to read Revelation 5 as anything other as a clear-cut statement that the saints are praying for us in heaven.
Three times the saints talked to other people
Armstrong builds on this by mentioning two other biblical passages that support prayer to the saints. (The other two examples in his original article pertains to prayers for the dead and so does not fit with our topic here.) These examples constitute a new category of evidence, showing that there are biblical instances in which the righteous dead talk to other people. I agree with Armstrong that they further support Catholic teaching on the saints, but each passage has unique complications that need to be carefully untangled in order to best assess their apologetical value. Here’s a quick look:
Saul’s conjuring of Samuels’ ghost: In 1 Samuel 28, with his defeat at the hands of David and the Philistines imminent, Saul goes to a medium, asking her to conjure up the ghost of Samuel. The problem is that the story is clearly meant to condemn conjuring up ghosts and consulting mediums—and that is how the Church has already read it. Armstrong is correct in pointing out that Samuel doesn’t say he can’t fulfill the request, only that it’s against God’s will.
But since the whole story reads more as a cautionary tale rather than a moral exemplar, it’s a hard case to make. Perhaps the most we can say is that if Saul had been in God’s good graces he wouldn’t have needed a medium to reach Saul, but could have prayed direct to the saint to intercede on his behalf. Is this reading too much into the text? It might seem like it, except that Jeremiah 15:1, as Armstrong notes, presumes that Moses and Samuel do intercede for the living. Our best strategy perhaps is to highlight Jeremiah 15:1, with 1 Samuel 28 in the background
Abraham and the rich man: First, there is the story of the rich man asking Lazarus to intervene to save his brothers, as told in Luke 16. This story seems to have all the elements that we associate with prayer for the intercession of a saint, with two key differences. One, the rich man is praying from hell, not earth. And, secondly, his request is denied. But the story does suggest that saints in heaven can hear prayers for elsewhere. Surely, if a saint could respond to a petition from hell, then how much more could he answer one from earth? But because of the mentioned twists to this story, its persuasive value may be limited.
Jesus calling on Elijah: Armstrong also briefly mentions the gospel account in Matthew 27, where those present at the crucifixion think Jesus is calling on Elijah. Presumably, this is evidence that the Jews of the time did call on the saints of the Old Testament. This much is fair to say. But two other factors limit how applicable it is to us today. First, Jesus was not actually praying to Elijah and, second, the mere existence of a practice in first century Judaism is not enough to justify our adoption of it.
In sum, each of these three stories has elements that provide some biblical basis for the Catholic conviction that we can and should prayer to the saints. But they are limited because of the inner complexities of each story. Moreover, none of them could be considered a model for the way we pray to the saints.
In other areas of distinctly Catholic belief we can cite biblical models. For example, Scripture actually shows Mary being venerated—first by the Angel Gabriel and then by her cousin Elizabeth.
So the question still stands, are there any biblical models for prayer to the saints?
What angels can teach us about saints
It turns out that the biblical models for prayer to the saints are more obvious than many of us realize. We can find what we are looking for in the many stories of the angels in Scripture. But, before we can present the evidence we need to make an argument as to why it is admissible.
Saints are like angels. First, we need to remember that the saints are regarded as being like angels—in that both are in heaven in the presence of God. Certainly this is a reasonable inference from the entire book of Revelation, in which both saints and angels are depicted as being present in the heavenly court. Moreover, Jesus declares in Matthew 22:30 that we will be “like the angels in heaven” when it comes to the absence of marrying in heaven. Finally, in 1 Corinthians 6:3 St. Paul tells us that we will judge the angels. It is safe to say that we are at least their heavenly peers.
Saints were not yet in heaven. But why do we even need to consider the angels? Assuming there is evidence of communication with the angels—which we will get to shortly—why are we limited to that? If the saints are on par with the angels, as argued above, then we should have plenty of examples of believers conversing with them, if we have instances of that happening with angels.
The response is that prior to Christ’s redemptive death and resurrection heaven is generally considered to have been closed to the saints. Catholic tradition holds that the righteous dead from the Old Testament were held in the limbo of the fathers, on the outer fringes of hell. Upon His death, Christ descended to hell where he freed the righteous dead, opening heaven to them. So if you’re wondering why the Bible doesn’t say more about prayer to the saints, that’s because there weren’t that many in heaven yet. (For now, we have to conclude that the above example of Moses, Samuel, and Elijah might be exceptions to this general rule.)
Talking to angels
So now we can further revise the question we have been posing along as this: Are these instances in Scripture in which people talk to angels, asking for their aid and intercession. The answer is, of course, yes. In fact, the biblical evidence here is quite voluminous. Here are just a few examples. (Note: I have excluded all instances where the angel was an ‘angel of the Lord,’ because an argument could be made that the angel of the Lord was an appearance of the pre-Incarnate Christ. That would still support my point, but some people might not agree.)
■ Lot venerates and talks to the angels
The two angels reached Sodom in the evening, as Lot was sitting at the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he got up to greet them; and bowing down with his face to the ground, he said, “Please, my lords, come aside into your servant’s house for the night, and bathe your feet; you can get up early to continue your journey.”
– Genesis 19:1-2
■ Jacob invokes the help of an angel
The angel who has delivered me from all harm,
bless these boys
That in them my name be recalled,
and the names of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac,
And they may become teeming multitudes
upon the earth!”
– Genesis 48:16
■ Ecclesiastes has guidance on what to say to angels
When you make a vow to God, delay not its fulfillment. For God has no pleasure in fools; fulfill what you have vowed. It is better not to make a vow than make it and not fulfill it.
Let not your utterances make you guilty, and say not before his representative [literal translation: angel], “It was a mistake.” Why should God be angered by your words and destroy the works of your hands?
– Ecclesiastes 5:3-5
■ the prophet Zechariah repeatedly converses with an angel
I looked out in the night, and there was a man mounted on a red horse standing in the shadows among myrtle trees; and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses.
I asked, “What are these, my lord?” Then the angel who spoke with me answered, “I will show you what these are.”
– Zechariah 1:8-9 (Note: the angel of the Lord is also mentioned but appears to be distinct from the angel talking to the prophet. (This commentator concurs.) Note also that the conversation continues later in verses 13, 14, and 19, as well as throughout chapters 2 to 6.)
To these examples from the Old Testament we could add several from the New Testament:
■ The announcement to Zechariah: Zechariah questions the angel who tells him that his wife will give birth to John the Baptist in Luke 1. Although it is an ‘angel of the Lord,’ it is less likely this is a pre-Incarnate Christ given that in the same chapter has the story of the Incarnation (see below).
■ The Annunciation: Mary’s questions and response to the Angel Gabriel in Luke 1.
■ John and the angel: Throughout the book of Revelation John sees or is accompanied by angels. He actually directly speaks to the angel in Revelation 10:9. In Revelation 17:7, the angel asks a question of John, which could presume that the apostle could respond—or at least strongly suggests there was some kind of conversation between them.
When we expand our evidence to look at angels, it becomes significantly enlarged. We can now revise our ongoing question one more time. Does Scripture provide us models for praying to—and requesting the intercession and aid of—holy persons from heaven? The answer is unequivocally yes.