For those who perhaps have not heard yet, my family and I began an intentional journey of full reconciliation with the Roman Catholic Church back in June of 2018. We are still on that journey which we believe will come to a crescendo when we are received into full communion at our Parish Church on Saturday, April 20, 2019, at the Easter Vigil Mass. One of the things we are all encouraged to do as part of our journey is to choose a Patron Saint (or “Confirmation Saint”). I chose as my Patron, St. Joseph, the carpenter, the husband of Mary, and the adoptive/surrogate father of the Lord Jesus. As I have delved into what it means to have St. Joseph as my patron, I have learned a phrase spoken by many Catholics to one another when they are faced with specific types of trials or concerns. It is…

“Go to Saint Joseph.”

As a Protestant Christian for 33 years, I would often recoil when I would hear Catholics talk about their Patron Saints, and would definitely reject the idea, and perhaps even forcefully preach against any kind of praying to a Saint for any reason. Such ideas were, in Protestant thinking, forbidden forms of idolatry (the worship of any being besides the one true God) and even necromancy (the conjuring up of a dead person through a medium in order to seek advice from them). I now see those conclusions as completely mistaken and misrepresented ideas about actual Catholic teaching on the matter. This post will be my own reflections on how I have reconciled (the word I have chosen for what is happening with us) with this important and even central part of Catholic spirituality.

Now, for those of you reading who may have been part of our Church while I was the Senior Pastor, did you ever say or think something like this?

Go talk to Pastor Kenny. He will pray for you. He’s close to Jesus.

Over the 20 years that I served as a vocational protestant pastor, people would come to me for mentoring, counseling, prayer, intervention, advice, and spiritual direction. They would tell me about their problems, their struggles, their sins, their goals, and just about any other aspect of their lives that one could imagine. What they wanted from me was a listening ear, understanding, wisdom, counsel, mentoring, advice, prayer, and guidance as someone who they thought could help them in their relationship with the Lord, and their pilgrimage through life.

I also noticed another thing during my time in Protestant ministry settings. In most of the churches where I pastored, we would have prayer teams regularly gather at the front of our worship spaces after church services. Attendees could go receive prayer for whatever they needed. It was always interesting to see that lines in front of some members of the prayer team were packed, while others were empty. If an usher suggested that a person move over to another prayer team member, they would occasionally be met with, “No. I want her to pray for me. She has an anointing to pray for this” (or something like this).

“Just go right to Jesus. You don’t need the Saints. Plus, they’re all dead!”

I want to assure you that neither I nor our ushers or staff members ever sent any of those people away saying, “Why do you think you need me or that person to pray for you? Blasphemy! Idolatry! Go directly to Jesus and not to us. You don’t need us. All you need is Jesus! There is but one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus!” No, we gladly received them and spoke with them, prayed with them, and encouraged them as much as we knew how to do it. Some of them, upon leaving my office or those prayer ministry lines, would remark to me and others that our ministry to them was exactly what they needed to move forward. Over the years since I have left that work, I still get notes, cards, and even phone calls from people who tell me that something I said or did in their life was the turning point they needed. I never respond to such appreciation by yelling at them or correcting them for “worshipping” me or for making me out to be their God by giving me credit for saving them from Hell, because that is not what they are doing. 

Protestants who have their favorite pastors and prayer-team ministers and counselors and mentors often say (when discussing the Catholic practice of prayer and veneration of the Saints), “You don’t need them. Just go right to Jesus! There is only one mediator between God and man, and that is Jesus Christ!”  But if this means that we go to Jesus for everything, and never to anyone else, then I have never met a Protestant who practices what they preach. They go regularly to their pastors, counselors, elders, advisers, and mentors. They ask for prayer all the time from people whom they know, love, and trust. And this is a good thing! And this is, at its core, all a Catholic Christian is doing when they go to the Saints who are now in heaven. Let me explain.

There are two errors in typical Protestant thinking here. First, there is the error of believing that once a person dies they are necessarily and essentially cut off from God’s people on earth. Perhaps they imagine that since the Saint is dead, they are not real anymore, or that there is no way to connect to them once they die without doing something evil in order to make the connection. There is not enough space to correct the error here, but one thing I will say is that once we are “In Christ” even when we leave our own body, we do not leave His, and the Body of Jesus is a resurrected body in Heaven. In the words of Peter Williamson:

“the Church is where heaven and earth overlap. The members of the Church on earth are united with God, being members of Christ, who is at the Father’s right hand (Eph 1:20; 2:4–6) through the gift of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:17; 12:13), a union that is actualized and experienced in their worship (Eph 5:18–20); consequently, they are understood to dwell in heaven (Eph 2:6; Col 3:1–3). At the same time, because God’s Spirit dwells in them, they constitute God’s temple on earth…” [1]

The Body of Christ is the temple of the Holy Spirit where God meets with all of His people. The more people, the bigger the temple! (read all about this in Eph. 2:19-22, 1 Cor. 3:16, 1 Pet. 2:5, etc). To be a Christian is to be in the Body (the temple) of Jesus which is both heavenly and earthly. In Jesus, we participate in “the Communion of Saints” (which is part of the Apostles Creed, which Catholics often recite aloud together at Mass). Whether on this side (earth) or that side (heaven) we are not cut off from God’s people when we are in the temple of the Body of Jesus. In Christ, we are one body always united to Him.

The second error is to use the “one mediator” text in 1 Tim. 2:5 as a way to teach against prayer to, and veneration of the Saints by mistakenly suggesting that Catholic teaching promotes the idea that the Saints can save us, or that we can go to them instead of Jesus in order to be saved. To put this error in thinking to rest, the prologue to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (the primary source for knowing what Catholicism officially teaches) begins with quotes from three texts of the New Testament that agree with what St. Paul says in 1 Tim. 2:15 when it reads:

“FATHER, . . . this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” “God our Savior desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” “There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” – than the name of JESUS.” [2]

Catholic teaching agrees; Jesus is the one and only way that there can be salvific mediation between God and humanity. Jesus, alone, can save us. The Saints, therefore, cannot save us from sin, hell, or death (and are not thought to be able to in Catholic teaching. Period. Full stop.). That is the simple teaching of the Catholic Church.

Different kinds of Mediation

Salvation is not the only kind of mediation, otherwise, how can we account for verses like this?

1 Tim. 2:1 – First of all, then, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone

1 Cor. 3:9 – For we are God’s co-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

2 Cor. 5:18 – And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation

Here are texts that call followers of Jesus to get involved in God’s work through things like prayer, work among those who don’t know Christ, and the ministry of reconciling humanity back to God. These are things that people do! No Christian who understands these verses would conclude that they point to alternative means of salvation. Rather, they point to our active participation in God’s saving work which is mediated by Jesus alone, but which is ministered and messaged out to the world by His Church (of which the Saints who have died will always be part).

Protestants who know anything about intercessory prayer should know this. How many social media posts have we seen where Christians are trying to get everyone in the world praying for a particular issue? Why do this? Why not just respond to all of them with something like, “Why are you asking others to pray? You don’t need their prayers. You can just go right to Jesus all by yourself!” And yet, this is exactly what Protestants (who ask for the prayers of others all the time) say to Catholic Christians when they talk about seeking the intercession of the Saints who now live in the heavenly dimension of God’s temple in the risen and ascended heaven-and-earth Body of the Lord Jesus!

Not saving mediation, but prayerful intercession!

Prayer is another kind of mediation that all believers should be engaged in, and as we’ll see, the Saints in heaven are busy at prayer!

Catholic teaching does not direct us to go to the Saints for salvation any more than people in the churches where I pastored came to my office to ask me to save them. Informed and properly taught Catholics are not asking the Saints in heaven to save them from their sins. They are not asking the Saints to be their Gods or to be the Lord of their lives. They are not looking to the Saints as either alternative or additional gods to be worshipped as the idols and false gods of the pagan religions. To say, “Just go to Jesus” is to very mistakenly assume that Catholics believe the Saints can save them, or that the Saints are (in Catholic teaching) being worshipped along with God. This is simply not the case. Rather, Catholics are going to the Saints in very much the same way that people in our church came to me.

Yeah, but you pray to them, right? Isn’t that the same as worshipping them?

In a word; No, and no. In the strictest sense, Catholics do not pray to the Saints, but rather with them. Prayer, in Catholic teaching about the Saints, is not about worshipping them, but rather about joining in what they are doing; praying and seeking God. In broadest Catholic parlance with respect to Saints, prayer is simply communicating (speaking or asking), in the Spirit, within the communion of Saints. If  Catholic says, in prayer, “St. Joseph, pray for us,” she is not worshipping St. Joseph. She is recognizing and connecting to the reality that St. Joseph is in the presence of God, worshipping him, and ministering in his presence. For Pentecostals who may be reading this, this is like going up to the front of the Church for prayer from the pastor. In doing this, you are not worshipping the pastor, but seeking his ministry of prayer on your behalf. 

Here’s what Joseph Kelley says about why Catholics believe this is possible in his book 101 Questions and Answers on Prayer:

All Christians—living and deceased—are united by their common gift of the Holy Spirit. So devotion to the saints is a way of exercising our communion with them, as well as of honoring their faith and striving to imitate it. We do not pray to the saints. We pray in communion with them to God through Jesus. We can also ask them to pray or intercede for us to God.[3]

When Jesus was speaking to the living Saints, Moses and Elijah, on the Mount of Transfiguration, he was not worshipping them by virtue of speaking to them. That is nonsense! He was speaking with them about his own ministry.

When the Archangel Gabriel came to both Zachariah and Mary in Luke’s gospel, and both of them spoke back and even asked questions (which is what Catholics mean when they say “pray” to anyone but God) they were not worshipping the angel Gabriel. This dialogue was happening between heavenly and earthly creatures, and was fully mediated by the Spirit of God (versus, for instance, a human medium such as a witch as in the case of Saul and the witch of Endor in 1 Sam. 28). For Catholics, using the word “prayer” with reference to the Saints in heaven is shorthand for this kind of Holy-Spirit-Mediated communion.

In addition, praying with the Saints in Catholic teaching is, in other ways, exactly the same as what was happening in my office when people would talk to me about their lives and ask me for both my feedback and my prayers. In fact, nearly every “prayer” with a Saint contains the words, “Pray for us.” As I said, in Catholic parlance, prayer is a broad word that means “speak to” or “ask” — and when we pray with a Saint in heaven, we realize that they are in heaven, and we join them in prayer (and benefit from their prayers), by the mediation of God’s Holy Spirit, in the Spiritual domain.

What we ultimately seek from the Saints is their powerful and effective ministry of prayer (see Rev. 5:8 and 8:4). We may also gain mentoring, encouragement, spiritual care, and direction from them as faithful followers of Jesus who only want to help us to follow Jesus faithfully ourselves. The Saints do not want, seek, receive, or accept worship for themselves. Their message can ultimately only be, “Follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1) and “Do whatever He tells you to do” (Jn. 2:5). If you think about it, at the end of any pastoral counseling session, I would have to say the same thing to a fellow follower of Jesus after I pray for them and seek to walk with them on their journey. And that is what the Saints say to us after they pray for us.

Okay, but what about the pictures and statue of Saints used by Catholics? That sure looks like idol worship to me!

Idolatry is defined in the Catechism as “The divinization of a creature in place of God; the substitution of someone (or thing) for God; worshiping a creature (even money, pleasure, or power) instead of the Creator.” [4] Catholics do not imagine that their statues or pictures, which may be used on stained glass windows, in paintings, sculptures, carvings, or other forms of art are to be worshipped. They also do not believe that the Saints are gods to be worshipped. They are not. The Saints are creatures who are created by God who are in the presence of God by virtue of their faith and faithfulness to Jesus who alone can save them. When a Catholic kneels down in front of a carving of St. Joseph, he is not worshipping the statue or imagining that the statue represents a god. For Catholics, these items function much like the photo or drawing of a family member (for that is what the Saints are).

Have you ever been to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.? I have been several times. I have read the words of the Gettysburg Address carved into the walls aloud with my son and stood in front of the gigantic seated statue of Lincoln in order to take in the impact (as much as is possible) of what his life meant to our nation during one of its darkest times. At no time did I ever imagine that I was worshipping a god. Even if I had bowed down to pray, I would not be imagining that Lincoln was my God. Rather, I would have been praying to God and soaking in the awe of how, perhaps, God used Lincoln during that season of American History. In the same way, when a Catholic kneels down in front of a picture or statue of a Saint, they are using that artwork the same way a widow might use a photo of their deceased husband in the Arlington National Cemetery. They are not worshipping the person depicted. Rather, they are using an object to help their minds to focus on the impact of that person’s life and gaining help in prayer from that person (who is really alive in God’s presence) as they make their own pilgrimage through life. When I was a Foursquare Pastor, we would take our teens up to Old Oak Ranch for a retreat every year. At the front of the worship center, there was always a photo of Aimee Semple McPherson on a table surrounded by flowers. McPherson was the founder of the Foursquare Church. Her photo reminded us of her ministry, and the reason why there was even a retreat center there for us to go to. No one would have ever imagined that by having her photo prominently centered in our worship space that we were worshipping her. No. We were including her memory and impact in our worship of Jesus Christ, for she was a link to that faith for many of us in different ways. Catholic teaching is firmly and clearly against idolatry, and so well-taught Catholics do not worship Saints or believe that the Saints are gods to be worshipped through the mediation of their photos or statues.

Saints Alive!

Faithful Catholics take seriously the words of Jesus that “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Mk. 12:27) and the words of the writer of Hebrews that we are, indeed surrounded by a great cloud of living witnesses (Heb. 12:1) who, in a manner of speaking, are cheering us on in our earthly pilgrimage. We embrace the words of James that “The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful” (James 5:16b). If the Saints who are in God’s heavenly presence are not exhibit A for this kind of capacity for powerful prayer, we don’t know who is! We take courage from their lives of faith, and we seek their wisdom and intercession on our journey as we pass through many of the same things they have already passed through. Since the Saints are venerated (honored and esteemed, and presented as examples worth following) in the pages of the Bible (Read Hebrews 11), they are venerated in the lives of faithful Catholics living through their pilgrim journey.

So, I will take the advice of my faithful fore-bearers as I follow, worship, and serve God alone. As often as I can on my journey, and for the rest of my life, I will, whenever I can, go to Saint Joseph. While I live, I will include him as a prayer partner and look to him as an example, counselor, and mentor who only wants me to do one thing — Follow Jesus! And when I die, I will pray that I can die as he likely did — in the loving embrace of Jesus.


References

[1] Peter S. Williamson, Revelation, ed. Mary Healy, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), 228.

[2] Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 7

[3] Joseph T. Kelley, 101 Questions & Answers on Prayer (New York; Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2008), 36.

[4] CCC, p. 883.

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