Picking up on something alluded to earlier regarding the practice of the Roman (and Orthodox) uncatholic Church:
Whenever someone warns against or condemns the invocation of the saints, you’re sure to hear this response in one form or another: “Look, ‘praying’ to the saints is the same going to another believer and requesting them to pray for you in a time of need. It’s no different than asking one of your friends at church to pray for you. It’s not treating the saints as if they are God, it’s simply asking them to pray for you before God’s throne.”
Yeah. Right. Well, there are lots of problems with this whole business (can the departed saints really hear us and know our thoughts? how?; why is there a special class of “saints” when all believers are called “saints” in the Scriptures? etc., etc., etc.) but let’s set them aside in order to consider just this one: When you actually read some of the prayers that are offered to the saints, it is FAR MORE than merely asking Thomas a’Becket, or Anselm, or Mary, to pray for me the next time they have the opportunity. Here are a few of the approved prayers that the devout may offer:
To St. Augustine: “At the beginning of the new millennium marked by the cross of Christ, teach us to read history in the light of Divine Providence, which guides events toward the definitive encounter with the Father. Direct us toward peaceful ends, nourishing in our hearts your own longing for those values on which it is possible to build, with the strength that comes from God, the ‘city’ made to the measure of man. May the profound doctrine, that with loving and patient study you drew from the ever living sources of Scripture, enlighten all those tempted today by alienating illusions. Give them the courage to undertake the path toward that ‘interior man’ where the One awaits who alone can give peace to our restless hearts. Many of our contemporaries seem to have lost the hope of being able to reach — amid the numerous opposing ideologies — the truth, of which their innermost being still keeps a burning nostalgia. Teach them to never cease in their search, in the certainty that, in the end, their effort will be rewarded by the satisfying encounter with the supreme Truth who is source of all created truth. Finally, St. Augustine, transmit to us also a spark of that ardent love for the Church, the Catholic Mother of the Saints, which sustained and animated the toils of your long ministry.” (from Pope John Paul II, November, 2004)
Here Augustine is asked to “teach,” “direct,” and “nourish our hearts” in his longing for particular values; to give courage; and finally to “transmit to us a spark” of his own love for the Church.
Prayer to St. Alphonsus: “St. Alphonsus, afflicted with curvature of the spine and nailed to a wheelchair cross in your final years, teach us to unite all our pains with the dreadful sufferings of Jesus on the cross. We ask you to ease our pains but more so to enable us to be one with Jesus in his great act of dying and rising. Amen.”
Alphonsus is asked to “ease” pain and to “enable” us to be one with Jesus in His death and resurrection.
Prayer to St. Anthony: “Saint Anthony, perfect imitator of Jesus, who received from God the special power of restoring lost things, grant that I may find (mention your petition) which has been lost. As least restore to me peace and tranquility of mind, the loss of which has afflicted me even more than my material loss.”
Anthony is asked to help find something that was lost or “at least” to restore the “peace and tranquility of mind” which has been lost through the trauma of losing something.
Prayer to Mary: “Most Holy Virgin Mary, Help of Christian, how sweet it is to come to your feet imploring your perpetual help. If earthly mothers cease not to remember their children, how can you, the most loving of all mothers forget me? Grant then to me, I implore you, your perpetual help in all my necessities, in every sorrow, and especially in all my temptations. I ask for your unceasing help for all who are now suffering. Help the weak, cure the sick, convert sinners. Grant through your intercessions many vocations to the religious life.” (Prayer of St. John Bosco)
Mary is asked to “help the weak, cure the sick, and convert sinners.”
And again: “Most Holy Immaculate Virgin and my Mother Mary, to thee, who art the Mother of my Lord, the Queen of the world, the Advocate, the Hope, and the Refuge of sinners, I have recourse today, I , who am the most miserable of all. I render thee my most humble homage, O great Queen, and I thank thee for all the graces thou hast conferred on me until now; particularly for having delivered me from hell, which I have so often deserved. I love thee, O most amiable Lady; and for the love which I bear thee, I promise to serve thee always and to do all in my power to make others love thee also. I place in thee all my hopes, I confide my salvation to thy care.” (Prayer of St. Alphonsus Mary Ligouri)
Mary is thanked for conferring graces and for delivering from hell. The worshiper places “all my hopes” in her and confides his salvation to her care.
We could go on, but these few prayers are enough to illustrate the problem. Over and over again, invoking the saints morphs into prayers to the saints for blessings and gifts that God alone can give. It is easy to understand N. T. Wright’s carefully understated warning: “Explicit invocation of saints may in fact be – I don’t say always is, but may be – a step towards that semi-paganism of which the Reformers were rightly afraid.” (For All the Saints, p. 41)
The prayers above (and there are many more to which we could point) treat the saints as gods, more akin to those of the old pagan pantheons than to our departed brothers and sisters (including the “super-holy” ones). The saints are addressed as if they have the power to impart blessings, give protection, bestow wisdom and sanctification, grant deliverance from eternal punishment and salvation itself. They are like the various pagan gods who had their little domains and specialties (so we have the patron saints of lost items, lost causes, poisoning, healthy throats, eyes, ears, teeth, intestines, cancer victims, florists, travelers, soldiers, business men, teachers, invalids, missions, child birth, jobs, etc., etc.).
It is almost inevitable that those who pray these prayers end up despising the power, mercy, and love of the Lord Himself. [Remember the word “despise” means to ignore or thinking little of]. Even when it is insisted that these prayers are merely requests for the assistance of the saints to “exert their influence” with God, the implication is that the Lord is reluctant to give His gifts unless His special friends and His mother persuade Him. That alone is highly offensive and undermines the grace, mercy, and love of God.
We certainly should honor the great heroes of the faith who have come before us (it is one of the requirements of the fifth commandment), but, as the Church has repeatedly taught, we venerate them appropriately when we give thanks for them as gifts of God to the Church and examples of His mercy and when we follow their example of faithfulness and imitate their virtues in accord with our particular callings.
Making petitions to departed saints for those blessings and mercies that God alone can give is idolatrous and a serious departure from the catholic faith.