The Worship of the Saints

Author: Rev. Joseph Pohle, Ph.D., D.D.
Source: Mariology, a dogmatic treatise on the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of God

Footnotes have been omitted here but can be found in the original document linked to above.


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The first and most important point to be noted in regard to the Catholic dogma of the worship of the Saints is that both dulia, i. e. the worship we render to the Saints in general, and hyper-dulia, i. e. that specific worship which we give to the Blessed Virgin in particular, differ formally and essentially from the divine worship due to Almighty God (latria).

The difference between dulia (including hyper-dulia) and latria is as vast as the gulf that separates the creature from its Creator. The relation between dulia and latria, like that between creature and Creator, is purely analogical. Their formal objects are separate and distinct. The formal object of latria is the virtus religionis; that of dulia, the virtus observantiae. This distinction is sufficient to disprove the odious charge, sometimes made against Catholics, that they adore the Virgin Mary and the Saints. Of its very nature the worship we give to the Saints has nothing in common with idolatry.

Dulia takes the form either of veneration or invocation. Veneration (veneratio) is respect and reverence shown to the Saints for their own sake. Invocation (invocatio) is calling upon them for help in order to advance our own welfare.

It is to be noted, however, that invocation logically includes, or at least presupposes, a certain respect and reverence for the person to whom it is directed, and consequently implies veneration.

Honor and veneration are by no means synonymous terms and should not be employed interchangeably. God honors His Saints, but He does not venerate them. Veneration logically connotes an acknowledgment of the superior excellence of, and humble submission to, the person to whom it is exhibited. Hence the term dulia, from [the greek douleia], i. e., service.

The cultus duliae which we exhibit to the person of a Saint is absolute, in contradistinction to the merely relative worship which we give to holy relics and images. Another essential difference is that relics and images, being inanimate objects, may be venerated but not invoked. "Honor or reverence," says St. Thomas of Aquin, "is due solely to rational creatures; those devoid of reason can be honored or reverenced only with respect to some rational nature."

It is licit and useful to venerate and invoke the Saints and to honor their relics. This is one of the most ancient dogmas of the Christian Church. To ridicule and condemn the veneration of the Saints and their relics, therefore, would be tantamount to accusing the Primitive Church of idolatry.

The Catholic teaching with regard to the worship of the Saints is succinctly set forth in the subjoined thesis.

Thesis: The Saints in Heaven are entitled to the cultus duliae, and we may, with profit to ourselves, beg them to intercede for us with God.

This thesis embodies two distinct articles of faith.

Proof of the First Part. The Council of Trent defines: "The honor which is given them [the images] is referred to the originals which they represent; in such wise that, by the images which we kiss, and before which we uncover our heads, or kneel, we adore Christ and venerate His Saints, whose likeness they bear." If it is permitted to venerate the images of the Saints, then, a fortiori, it must be permitted to venerate the Saints themselves.

a) It is true that Sacred Scripture, while it praises and approves the cultus of the angels, says nothing about the veneration of the Saints. But what it says of the angels may safely be applied to the Saints in Heaven. The Bible even tells us of religious veneration rendered to saintly persons on earth.

In warning the Colossians against the "religion of angels," St. Paul had in mind the worship of aeons as practiced by certain Jews and Gnostics.

A real difficulty against our thesis seems to arise from Apoc. XIX, 10, where the angel appearing to St. John declines the adoration offered to him. "And I fell down before his feet to adore him. And he saith to me : See thou do it not: I am thy fellow servant, and of thy brethren, who have the testimony of Jesus. Adore God." Rightly interpreted, however, this passage confirms rather than disproves the licitness of the veneration given to the angels. For when St. John "fell down before his feet to adore" the angel, he either believed that Christ Himself stood before him, and in that case it was the angel's duty to disabuse him of his error and to refuse the adoration offered; or he was aware that the apparition was an angel, and then he believed it to be licit and proper to "fall down before his feet and adore him," in which case adorare is evidently used in the sense of venerari. But why did the Angel decline the worship offered to him? He gives the reason himself. Because St. John, being an Apostle of Christ, was his "fellow servant," the equal, as a divine messenger, of the angels, and under no obligation to humiliate himself before them (dulia = servitus) .

Paul and Barnabas restrained the people of Lystra from honoring them, because the worship offered was idolatrous. Acts XIV, 10 sqq. : "And when the multitudes had seen what Paul had done, they lifted up their voice in the Lycaonian tongue, saying: The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men; and they called Barnabas Jupiter: but Paul, Mercury, because he was chief speaker. The priest also of Jupiter that was before the city, bringing oxen and garlands before the gate, would have offered sacrifice with the people."

b) Devotion to the angels, especially the guardian angels, seems to be older than worship of the Saints. But this is due entirely to historic conditions. The infant Church had first to beget Saints before she could honor them. It is easy to see, too, why the martyrs were the first Saints to be venerated. The early Christians regarded martyrdom as the climax of Christian virtue. To lay down one's life for the faith was to obtain forgiveness of all sins, immediate entrance to Heaven, and the privilege of being forever identified with the fortunes of the Church on earth. The graves of the martyrs in course of time became altars, and before long the veneration of other Saints who were not martyrs, especiallly the Blessed Virgin Mary, grew more popular.

Tertullian testifies that in his day the memory of the martyrs was celebrated every year. St. Cyprian says: "We celebrate the sufferings of the martyrs and their days by annual commemorations." St. Augustine vigorously defends the ancient Christian practice of venerating the martyrs. "The Christian populace," he says in his treatise against Faustus the Manichaean, "celebrates the memory of the martyrs with religious solemnity, ... but we rear altars not to any martyr, but to the God of martyrs Himself, though in memory of the martyrs. For what priest, standing before the altar where their sacred bodies lie, has ever said: We offer [sacrifice] to thee, O Peter, or Paul, or Cyprian? What is offered, is offered to God, who has crowned the martyrs, near the memorial places of those whom He has crowned, that a stronger affection may arise from the places themselves to intensify our love both for those whom we can imitate and for Him by whose help we are able to imitate them. We venerate the martyrs, therefore, with that worship of love and association by which the Saints of God are venerated in this life, ... all the more devoutly, because they have securely won their battles. ... But we worship God alone by that cult which in Greek is called [greek word latreia], a term for which there is no equivalent in Latin, as it means a certain servitude which in its proper sense is due only to the Divinity."

A solid proof for the reasonableness and utility of the pious practice of venerating the Saints is found in the festivals and liturgies, the songs and hymns, the homilies and sermons dedicated to them, and the churches and chapels erected in their honor from the earliest times both in the East and in the West.

Proof of the Second Part. The Council of Trent declares the invocation of the Saints to be a "good and useful" practice: "It is good and useful to invoke them supplicatingly and to take refuge to their prayers, power, and help to obtain benefits from God through His Son Jesus Christ, our Lord, who is the sole Redeemer and Saviour."

An early opponent of this doctrine was Vigilantius, a priest in Gaul (A. D. 402), who claimed that to invoke the Saints was a pagan custom. His objections were refuted by St. Jerome. In modern times the Protestant denial of the dogma prompted the Tridentine Council to define it formally as follows: "Those are guilty of impiety who deny that the Saints who enjoy eternal felicity in Heaven, are to be invoked, or who assert either that they do not pray for men or that to invoke them in order that they may pray for us, even individually, is idolatry; or that it is against the Word of God and contrary to the honor of Jesus Christ, the only mediator between God and men, or that it is foolish to pray by word of mouth or mentally to those who reign in Heaven."

a) The licitness of the invocation of the angels and Saints can be both directly and indirectly proved from Holy Scripture.

  1. The indirect argument runs as follows: According to Sacred Scripture God frequently heeded the intercession of just and holy men while they were still living on earth. Now, the intercession of the angels and Saints, who have reached their final goal, is more powerful and effective than that of men, no matter how holy, who are still in danger of committing sin. If these can be effectively asked for their intercession, the same must a fortiori be true of the angels and Saints, who are friends of God in a higher sense because of their righteousness and glory.

    The major premise of this syllogism can be proved by innumerable examples. Thus, for instance, Abraham prayed for Sodom, and God heard him. Moses prayed for his people, and the Lord listened to his supplication. Job interceded for his friends, and Yahweh blessed them. St. Paul prayed for two hundred threescore and sixteen who were in danger of shipwreck, and "every soul got safe to land."

    The minor premise is thus established by St. Jerome against Vigilantius: "If the Apostles and martyrs, while yet in the body, and in need of being solicitous for themselves, were able to pray for others, how much more [may they pray for others now] after having obtained their crown, won the victory and triumphed ? One man, Moses, besought God for forgiveness for six hundred armed men; and Stephen, the follower of his Master and the first martyr in Christ, prayed for his persecutors. Will they be less powerful now that they are with Christ? The Apostle Paul says that he saved two hundred and seventy-six souls in the boat. Can we assume that after his death, when he began to be with Christ, his mouth was sealed and he was unable to utter a word in behalf of those who throughout the world accepted his Gospel?"

    It should not be objected that the Saints have no knowledge of earthly affairs; for our Divine Saviour Himself says: "There shall be joy before the angels of God upon one sinner doing penance."

  2. The direct argument is based upon those passages of Sacred Scripture in which men are described as successfully invoking the angels and saints.

    Thus the Archangel Raphael said to the saintly Tobias: "When thou didst pray with tears, ... I offered thy prayer to the Lord." St. John beheld "golden vials full of odors, which are the prayers of the saints." "And the smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended up before God from the hand of the angel." Judas Machabseus, in "a dream worthy to be believed, whereby he rejoiced them all," saw the high priest Onias and the prophet Jeremias, (both of whom were dead), "pray for all the people of the Jews Cfr. 2 Mach. XV, 12 sqq.: "Onias, who had been high priest, a good and virtuous man, ... holding up his hands, prayed for all the people of the Jews. And after this there appeared also another man, admirable for age and glory, and environed with great beauty and majesty. Then Onias answering said: 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." If the Angels and Saints can help us by their intercession, we certainly do well to invoke them in our manifold needs.

b) We can quote no explicit confirmation of our thesis from Tradition prior to the year 180. But Origen, who lived towards the close of the second century, and St. Hippolytus (about 222), teach that it is licit and profitable to invoke the blessed martyrs on behalf of the living and the dead. Numerous sepulchral inscriptions show that it was customary at a very early date to pray to the martyrs for their intercession, and likewise to Saints who were not martyrs. We find the dogma fully developed, both in theory and practice, as early as the fourth century.

St. Ambrose says: "The Angels must be honored, ... the martyrs must be implored, ... let us not be ashamed to employ them as intercessors in our infirmity." St. Chrysostom, speaking of the martyrs, says: "Not only on this their festival day, but on other days as well, let us cleave to and invoke them, and pray that they be our protectors, for they enjoy great confidence during this life and after death, yea, much more after death. For they bear the signs of Christ's wounds, and when they exhibit these, they can persuade their King to do anything." St. Chrysostom elsewhere admonishes his hearers to work out their own salvation, because we "need no intercessors with God;" but in saying this he does not mean to deny the propriety and effectiveness of invoking the Saints, but merely wishes to strengthen the confidence of Christians in their own powers, as he himself explains: "If we do our share, the intercession of the Saints will profit us greatly; but if we are careless and stake our hope of salvation entirely on that intercession, it will not avail us much; not as if the Saints possessed less power, but because we are our own betrayers on account of our indolence."

c) The strong faith which devout Catholics repose in the special power of certain Saints to aid them in particular necessities, is based on St. Paul's teaching as to the diverse functions proper to the different members of Christ's mystical body.

Cfr. 1 Cor. XII, 18: "Now God hath set the members every one of them in the body as it hath pleased him." This teaching, which was echoed by St. Augustine, led to the selection of special patron Saints for different cities, villages, churches, and chapels, the invocation of individual patrons, and of this or that particular Saint for certain special favors. St. Thomas recommends it as a safe rule not to invoke the greater Saints exclusively, but to appeal now and then to the "sancti minores." He gives five distinct reasons for this: (1) Many Christians harbor greater affection for some particular Saint; (2) There is need of variety, lest we grow weary in praying; (3) It is probable that in certain matters the intercession of some Saints is more powerful than that of others; (4) It is meet that all who have a claim to honor should be honored; and (5) The combined intercession of several Saints is of greater efficacy than that of one alone.
 
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