Why do we pray to the saints and how did this practice start?
Praying to the saints (or more properly said, praying for the “intercession of the saints”) has been around since the earliest times. To begin with a more
general image, might I invite us to consider our own connections to those we know who have died, that we might connect our own very personal experience to considering a relationship with those whom the Church has declared to be saints – and why praying for them is both right and of great benefit to us.
Perhaps the first issue is what difference could possibly come from seeking help from those who have already died. Yet, in considering devotion to the saints, there is a basic human longing that is partially filled: the desire to be with those who have left us. The reality of death obviously leads to separation between those who have died from those who still live on earth. Those who remain on earth sometimes have a longing desire to be near to their own deceased loved ones – including the want to continue to speak to them. Accordingly, as it naturally makes sense that we may have a longing to be close to those among our own loved ones who have died (whom we might even still “talk to” in our own way) so too the idea of talking to or “praying” to the saints remains a natural inclination of the human heart – especially when we acknowledge that these whom we call saints are declared to already be in the fullness of God’s presence in heaven. That some are called “saints” in no way changes the human longing. What is different, however, is that such “talking to the saints” is done with a confidence that they can truly help us in a way that we cannot otherwise be helped by other persons – as they are “holy” and “with God.”
It is truly a recent issue that many say we do wrong by “praying to the saints.” Only in the times since the 16th century Protestant Reformation has this custom been deemed by some to be inappropriate or presumed to be offensive to God. The reasoning of those who argue against praying to saints tends to focus on selections from Hebrews 8-10 or 1 Timothy 2:5 that speak of one mediator between God and man: Jesus Christ. However, a very plain problem with their reasoning is that such a view allows for no others to share in the work of the one mediator. Thus, if Jesus is the only mediator, not only could we not share in the work of prayer for one another among our own living family and friends, but taken to the extreme we cannot even talk to one another about God. Such a myopic view of mediation sees only Jesus as the means to Jesus. I am confident, however, that every one of us has been aided in our faith in Jesus by another who is not Jesus Himself – thus showing the problem of a strict interpretation of the mediation of Jesus.
I lay out this counter argument first so that I can more openly appeal to what is good about devotion to the saints. Of first note: when we ask the saints to intercede, we do so aware that their prayers are perfectly offered to God, in whose perfect presence they now dwell. Additionally, to ask the intercession of the saints is to ask of those whose lives are spent in perfect union with God to aid us who are not yet living in that perfect union – which increases the power of our prayer, as it is being directly asked for us by these saints. As all of us regularly ask one another in this world for prayers, the devotion to saints is essentially asking others to pray for us, with the key difference that nothing will stand in the way of them praying, nor will they forget to do so (as we may be apt to do, even accidentally, when another asks us to pray for them). Finally, such prayer is truly powerful in bringing about greater unity in the Church, as the more who pray for a common intention, whether on earth or in heaven, the greater the manifesting of the unity of the Church.
Of last note – and of encouragement to you: realize that the saints are many and varied in their lives, their gifts, and their reputations for holiness. By having devotion to saints whom we admire for their personal story and lives of holiness can help us to imitate them and become more like them. Thus, I urge all to have devotion to your favorite saints and do not be afraid to ask for their help, as they will pray that you become like they now are as sharers of God’s eternal glory.