For us Catholics, praying to saints and angels can seem like the most natural thing in the world. We do it all the time both in the Church’s official liturgies and in our personal prayers, so it is part of the fabric of our daily spiritual lives. However, not all Christians feel the same way. To our Protestant brothers and sisters, it is often a very foreign practice. In fact, many of them believe that it is useless at best and borderline idolatrous at worst.
So let’s take a look at this disagreement and evaluate some of the arguments on both sides. In particular, let’s look at the most common argument that Protestants often make against praying to saints and angels, and then we will see where the Bible does in fact endorse this Catholic practice.
The Common Protestant Argument
Let’s start with the Protestant side. Many of them believe that praying to saints and angels directly contradicts the teaching of Scripture, and to demonstrate this, they often point to a passage in one of St. Paul’s letters:
“For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”(1 Timothy 2:5)
They assert that when we ask saints and angels to intercede for us, we’re making them mediators between us and God, thereby usurping the role of the one legitimate mediator, Jesus Christ. On the surface, this argument does seem plausible. A mediator is someone who mediates between two parties. In other words, it is a go-between. For example, if I send a worker to deliver a message to a friend, that worker is a mediator because I’m sending my message through him. He is mediating my message to the other person, so he is a mediator. Consequently, if we ask the saints and angels to bring our petitions to God, we are asking them to act as mediators between us and God, but Scripture is clear that there is only one such mediator.
Like I said, that seems to make sense on the surface, but if we examine the logic a bit more closely, it doesn’t hold up. Scripture contains several figures who mediate between God and mankind without usurping Jesus’ role as the only mediator, so this passage cannot rule out asking angels and saints to intercede for us. For example, all of the Old Testament prophets were mediators because they relayed God’s messages to his people, as were the angels who told Mary and Joseph about Jesus (Matthew 1:20-21, Luke 1:26-38).
Plus, we find another, even more relevant counterexample just a few verses before St. Paul says that we only have one mediator:
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior.”(1 Timothy 2:1-3)
With these words, St. Paul tells us that we should intercede for “all men,” and this is our smoking gun. When we intercede for others, we’re acting as mediators between them and God, so St. Paul could not have meant that Jesus is the only one who can mediate between us and God in any sense whatsoever. If he did, then he was contradicting what he wrote just a few lines earlier.
And this is important because when we intercede for others, we are acting as mediators in exactly the same way that we ask angels and saints to be mediators for us. Both are instances of people praying for others, so if we do not usurp Jesus’ role as our only mediator when we pray for others, then neither do the saints and angels when we ask them to pray for us.
So given all that, what did St. Paul mean when he said that Jesus is our only mediator? While the word can refer to any sort of go-between, it also has another, more specific meaning. In this narrower sense, it refers to someone who reconciles two quarreling parties. For example, if someone negotiates a peace treaty between two warring countries, he is acting as a mediator, and this is how St. Paul used the word. He meant that Jesus is the only one who has reconciled sinful humanity with God and made us his sons and daughters again. Now, when we ask saints and angels to pray for us, we’re clearly not asking them to be mediators in this sense, so this teaching does not contradict our practice.
The Catholic Verses
Let’s change lanes now and turn to an argument in favor of praying to saints and angels. While Scripture does not say much about it, there are a few passages that support the practice, and they both come from Revelation, the final book of the Bible:
“And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”(Revelation 5:8)
“And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God.”(Revelation 8:3-4)
These passages are pretty straightforward, but there is one potential misunderstanding that we need to clear up. Both of them mention “saints,” and to modern ears, that sounds like they’re referring to saints in heaven. However, in the New Testament, the word actually refers to Christians here on earth (for example, as in Acts 9:13, Romans 12:13, 2 Corinthians 1:1). In Greek, it literally means “holy ones,” and since we have been sanctified by virtue of our baptism and are called to remain holy throughout our lives, it is a fitting word to use for members of the Church on earth.
The Bible’s Teaching
Once we understand that, the significance of these passages to our topic becomes clear. In the first one, we see heavenly beings worshipping at the foot of God’s throne and offering him bowls with “the prayers of the saints.” Now, there aren’t literal bowls and thrones in heaven, so this is clearly meant to be interpreted figuratively (as is the vast majority of the book of Revelation). It symbolizes the intercession of the angels and saints in heaven for those of us here on earth.
Similarly, the second text shows an angel doing pretty much the same thing. He offers up a bowl of incense with “the prayers of all the saints,” which again symbolizes his intercession on behalf of those on earth.
When we put this all together, we can only come to one conclusion: saints (in heaven) and angels can and do bring our prayers before God, so asking for their intercession is neither useless nor idolatrous. Instead, it is a good and biblical practice, so we should continue to do it with the confidence that they will hear us and bring our petitions before the throne of God, just like the book of Revelation says.
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