The Catholic belief that the Saints in heaven are aware of what is going on here on earth, that they are eager to assist us with their prayerful intercession, and that we can even ask them for their intercession is a big stumbling block to most Bible-believing Christians. They claim that such practice of “praying to the dead” is unscriptural, even explicitly forbidden by scripture itself.
Let’s reason from the scriptures.
One popular verse that is often quoted as an argument against praying to Mary and the Saints in heaven is 1 Timothy 2:5, “For there is one God: and one mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” The argument here is that since the Bible teaches that there is one mediator between God and men, we should not pray to anyone else, because that would make these others mediators in opposition to, or in replacement of the one mediator, Christ Jesus. In other words, if Jesus is the one mediator, then there can be no other mediators.
But notice the first word in this verse, “for”, which is a translation of the Greek word γαρ, a conjunction word, and which “ties two (or more) clauses or statements together in which one explains or affirms the other(s).” (Abarim Publications’ Biblical Dictionary) What follows that little word “for” affirms, explains, or is given as a reason for what precedes it. So as usual, in order to correctly understand this verse we must look at the context, and in particular the verses immediately preceding it.
In verse 1 St. Paul is urging the brethren to make “supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings for all men,” adding in verse 3 that “this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour.” So what St. Paul is saying here is that praying for others is good and acceptable, precisely because we have one mediator between us and God, the man Christ Jesus. Why is this so? Because it is through Jesus, on account of the merits that He obtained for us, that our prayers are made good and acceptable in the sight of God.
In John 14:13, Jesus Himself explains this: “whatsoever you shall ask the Father in my name, that will I do.” The prayers of an unbeliever are not good and acceptable, because unbelievers do not pray in Jesus’ name. They do not rely on the merits that Jesus obtained for us, they bypass Jesus, the only mediator between men and God that can and does make the prayers of men acceptable to God. This is what St. Paul is telling us, that our prayers are good and acceptable in the sight of God, because we pray in Jesus’ name, which is the only mediator that can make our prayers good and acceptable in the sight of God.
But does that mean that we Christians cannot mediate for one another by praying for each other in Jesus’ name? Of course not, as St. Paul himself says so in the same breath. In Romans 15:30, St. Paul even asks his brethren to be mediators between him and God, but only “through Our Lord Jesus Christ”, the one mediator. In this sense, we share in Jesus’ mediatorship, who told us to even pray for our enemies (Luke 6:28, Matthew 5:44), just as there is only one teacher (Matthew 23:8) but all Christians participate in His teaching ministry (Ephesians 4:11), and just as there is only one high priest (Hebrews 3:1) but some are called to participate in Jesus’ priesthood (1 Peter 2:5,9). More examples of Christians being invited to pray for one another and to ask for each other’s prayers can be found in Ephesians 4:3, 6:18-19 and 2 Thessalonians 1:11, 3:1.
OK, so we can legitimately ask others to pray for us, but why would we want to do that if we can go directly to Jesus? James 5:16 gives us the answer: “For the continual prayer of a just man availeth much.” If the prayer of a just man availeth much, it follows that the prayer of an unjust man does not avail as much. There is a nice illustration of this in the book of Job, where God refuses to hear the prayer of Eliphaz the Themanite and tells him to go to Job instead, adding that “Job shall pray for you: his face I will accept.” (Job 42:8)
At this point it is also important to note with St. Thomas Aquinas that there are two ways that prayers can be offered: “Prayer is offered to a person in two ways: first, as to be fulfilled by him, secondly, as to be obtained through him.” In the first way, we offer prayer to God alone, because God alone can give us “grace and glory” (Psalm 83:12). “But,” St. Thomas continues, “in the second way we pray to the saints, whether angels or men, not that God may through them know our petitions, but that our prayers may be effective through their prayers and merits.” Another illustration of this is given at the wedding feast in Cana, where Mary pleaded with Jesus on behalf of the servants that had run out of wine. And even though Jesus replied that His time had not yet come, He answered Mary’s prayers on behalf of the servants anyway. Mary is the first intercessor in the New Testament, and so powerful that Jesus is willing to perform His first miracle ahead of time, at Mary’s request!
Since the Bible teaches us, by the words and example of St. Paul, that asking others to pray for us is legitimate, and, by the words of St. James, that the prayers of the just man availeth much, it follows that it is good and acceptable for us to find a just man and to ask him to pray for us. And if there’s anyone whom we know for certain that is considered just in God’s eyes, it is Mary and the Saints in heaven.
So, at this point, the argument then becomes: “OK, I have no problem with intercessory prayers, even if they are directed to living saints in order to ask them to pray for us in Jesus’ name, but where does the Bible teach us that we can pray to dead saints?”
The Mystical Body of Christ
The phrase “dead saints” betrays a misunderstanding of the Mystical Body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 12:12-17 St. Paul explains that we are all “baptized into one body”, and that we have all become members of the same body, of which Christ is the head (Colossians 1:18). Christians are so closely united into one body, that “if one member suffer any thing, all the members suffer with it: or if one member glory, all the members rejoice with it.” (1 Colossians 12:26) This is what it means to belong to the Mystical Body of Christ. Jesus uses the image of the branches grafted onto the Vine to express the same idea. (John 15:1-8)
Since then we are so firmly incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ, and since St. Paul assures us that nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even death itself (Romans 8:38-39), it follows that the just who die in the grace of God remain united to His Mystical Body. They remain grafted into the Vine. The saints that “die” on earth, may have died a physical death, but they will never suffer the second death mentioned in Revelation 2:11. As the saying goes, “born once, die twice, born twice die once.”
In Romans 8:10-11 St. Paul tells us that our bodies may be “dead, because of sin; but the spirit liveth, because of justification”. And in Mark 12:27 Jesus assures us that God “is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” We see this also in the Transfiguration, where Jesus spoke with Moses and Elias, not with two dead and unresponsive bodies! (Matthew 17:3) The just dead are truly alive with and in Christ!
The living saints on earth are called the Church Militant, because they are still fighting the good fight. The living Saints in heaven are called the Church Triumphant, because they have already obtained their crown. The saints in purgatory are called the Church Suffering, because, even though they can no longer lose the crown that is awaiting them, they are still being purified and suffer on account of this purification. The three are joined together in Christ and this is what Catholics call the Communion of Saints.
So, the argument then becomes: “OK, we believe the Saints in heaven are alive, but that does not mean they are aware of what is happening here on earth, or that they care about us.”
A Cloud of Witnesses
Let’s turn to the book of Hebrews now. In Hebrews 12:1, St. Paul urges us to fight the good fight, keeping in mind that we have “so great a cloud of witnesses over our head.” These witnesses are “over our head”, which means they are above us, in heaven. And since they are witnesses, they must be alive, awake and paying attention to what we are doing. So who are these witnesses?
St. John gives us the answer. In his vision of the Temple being opened in heaven and the Ark of the New Covenant being revealed, he saw under the altar “the souls of them that were slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held” (Revelation 6:9). These were indeed witnesses because in the very next verse St. John adds that they “cried with a loud voice, saying: How long, O Lord (Holy and True), dost thou not judge and revenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10) For these witnesses to ask the Lord to revenge them upon them that dwell on the earth, they must have been well aware that their enemies were still alive on the earth, and that they were still enemies. And the fact that “it was said to them that they should rest for a little time till their fellow servants and their brethren, who are to be slain even as they, should be filled up” (Revelation 6:11), indicates that the battle was still going on here on earth. These Saints in heaven are well aware of what’s going on here on earth, and they are very much interested enough to ask God to intervene.
Also note that Jesus says in Luke 15:7 that “there shall be joy in heaven upon one sinner that doth penance, more than upon ninety-nine just who need not penance.” For there to be joy in heaven, heaven must be awake, paying attention and caring about us. They care so much that they rejoice over just one sinner that does penance. How could they rejoice if they are unaware or uncaring? And “heaven” cannot be limited to the angels only, as Jesus tells us in Luke 20:36 that the Saints in heaven are made “equal to the angels.”
In Revelation 8:3-4, John saw that the angel was holding a golden censor, that the “much incense” it contained symbolised the “prayers of all saints,” and that “the smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended up before God from the hand of the angel.” So we see the angel offering up the “prayers of all saints”, which includes the living saints on earth as well as the living Saints in heaven. Our prayers are joined with their prayers, so that our prayers are made more “good and acceptable in the sight of God”.
At this point there will probably still be “Bible-believers” who refuse to accept that we can pray to the living Saints in heaven, unless someone can show them a Scripture verse that explicitly teaches this doctrine or at least gives a clear example of living Saints in heaven praying for us. Like a doubting Thomas, they will not believe unless they can put their finger on one verse of Scripture that spells it all out.
Unfortunately for them, Luther has defrauded them of such clear and direct Scripture verses. Catholics on the other hand have a book in their Bible that gives them a clear example of the living Saints in heaven praying for the living Saints on earth. Judas Maccabees saw in “a dream worthy to be believed” that two men appeared to him, Onias the high priest and Jeremias the prophet, who at that time were no longer living on earth. And Judas saw that Onias, “holding up his hands, prayed for all the people of the Jews.” Of the other man appearing to Judas, Onias said that “this is a lover of his brethren, and of the people of Israel: this is he that prayeth much for the people, and for all the holy city, Jeremias, the prophet of God.” (2 Maccabees 15:11)
Also, in the book of Tobit, we see that the angel of the Lord, Raphael, when speaking to Tobias said that he “offered thy prayer to the Lord.” (Tobit 12:12)
The Early Church Fathers
As always, we can turn to the Early Church Fathers to check that our understanding and interpretation of Scripture is also how they understood and interpreted Scripture.
Clement of Alexandria
“In this way is he [the true Christian] always pure for prayer. He also prays in the society of angels, as being already of angelic rank, and he is never out of their holy keeping; and though he pray alone, he has the choir of the saints standing with him [in prayer]” (Miscellanies 7:12 [A.D. 208]).
“But not the high priest [Christ] alone prays for those who pray sincerely, but also the angels … as also the souls of the saints who have already fallen asleep” (Prayer 11 [A.D. 233]).
Cyprian of Carthage
“Let us remember one another in concord and unanimity. Let us on both sides [of death] always pray for one another. Let us relieve burdens and afflictions by mutual love, that if one of us, by the swiftness of divine condescension, shall go hence first, our love may continue in the presence of the Lord, and our prayers for our brethren and sisters not cease in the presence of the Father’s mercy” (Letters 56:5 [A.D. 253]).
Cyril of Jerusalem
“Then [during the Eucharistic prayer] we make mention also of those who have already fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition…” (Catechetical Lectures 23:9 [A.D. 350]).
Ephraim the Syrian
“You victorious martyrs who endured torments gladly for the sake of the God and Savior, you who have boldness of speech toward the Lord himself, you saints, intercede for us who are timid and sinful men, full of sloth, that the grace of Christ may come upon us, and enlighten the hearts of all of us so that we may love him” (Commentary on Mark [A.D. 370]).
“A Christian people celebrates together in religious solemnity the memorials of the martyrs, both to encourage their being imitated and so that it can share in their merits and be aided by their prayers” (Against Faustus the Manichean [A.D. 400]).
As Catholics, we believe in the Communion of Saints, that all who are alive in Christ will remain alive in Christ, that death cannot separate us from the love of Christ, and that we are all members of the Mystical Body of Christ. This Communion of Saints is the reason why we pray for one another, and why we will continue praying for one another for as long as there are members of this Mystical Body that need our prayers. And when we pass from living on earth to living in heaven, we will join the great crowd of witnesses that John saw under the altar, and join our prayers with the prayers of all saints that rise up as incense before the throne of God. But while we are still here on earth, we do not hesitate to ask the Saints in heaven, and especially the Blessed Virgin Mary, to take our prayers, to join them with their own prayers, and to bring them to the throne of God. Scripture teaches it, good theology explains it, the Early Church Fathers confirmed it, and Catholics believe and practice it.
“But does the Bible not explicitly forbid us from communicating with the dead? That would be necromancy, would it not?”
Necromancy is defined as “the practice of supposedly communicating with the spirits of the dead in order to predict the future.” (Wordnik)
When we pray to the Saints in heaven for their intercession, we are not in any way trying to predict the future, like Saul did and as the Bible condemns, and neither are we trying to obtain from them anything else that only God can give. We are simply asking that they pray and intercede for us. That has nothing to do with necromancy, especially because praying to the Saints in heaven is a one way communication. We pray to the Saints, they pass our prayers on to God, and it is God who answers them.