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“Ask a Priest: Why do we pray to the saints?”
Q: I have been trying to explain why we pray to saints to one of my sisters and I’m a little lost. Is there some book I could read that would give me as simple an explanation as possible to relate to her? -M.O.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: The simple way to think about our praying to the saints is this: All the faithful are part of the Church, the mystical body of Christ. And as with a physical body, the good of one part of the body helps the other parts too.
The Catechism in No. 947 says, “Since all the faithful form one body, the good of each is communicated to the others. … We must therefore believe that there exists a communion of goods in the Church.”
That “communion of goods” includes the ability of the saints – those souls who are in heaven – to intercede for us. The Catechism in its part on Christian Prayer says in No. 2683: “The witnesses who have preceded us into the kingdom, especially those whom the Church recognizes as saints, share in the living tradition of prayer by the example of their lives, the transmission of their writings, and their prayer today. They contemplate God, praise him and constantly care for those whom they have left on earth. When they entered into the joy of their Master, they were ‘put in charge of many things.’ Their intercession is their most exalted service to God’s plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world.”
Intercession of the saints builds on a common practice we see in this world. Think of how often we might say, “I am praying for you” or “Please pray for my Aunt Beth who is having surgery tomorrow.” It is a sign of our concern for one another’s well-being. Think too of the more-mundane examples of intercession that are common. As children perhaps we learned to go to Mom first if we wanted something from Dad. Or we used our influence to get a relative a job or a legitimate favor from a local politician.
None of this, of course, is meant to discourage praying directly to Christ. Our closeness to Christ in fact engenders our closeness to one another, so those petitions for intercession seem to be a fitting way to involve others in our prayer life.
Intercession is encouraged in the Bible. For instance, 1 Timothy 2:1-3 says: “First of all, then, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior.”
Intercession is a natural and supernatural way we help one another and build bonds. In the Church this is part of what the “communion of saints” is about. Another part is that you and I can pray (intercede) for the souls in purgatory — thus we can still do acts of charity for loved ones who have died. Indeed the faithful on earth as well as the souls in purgatory and heaven all form part of the body of Christ. (By the way, the Catechism is the most accessible book I could recommend on the notion of praying to the saints. A helpful article can be found here.)
I hope this helps. And I pray that you help enlighten others about the richness of praying to the saints. God bless.