Pray for Us Sinners

 

One of the most mysterious rifts to have developed
in the Christian world is that between those who pray to the saints in glory, or for the dead in Christ, and those who regard all this as utterly sinister. The rift is, of course, of extremely recent vintage, historically speaking. But it is deep and wide now. Somehow the notion has grown up that, for instance, to seek the intercession of the Blessed Virgin on one’s own behalf or, worse still, for one who has died is to participate in something like a séance, to insult the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, and to engage in idolatry.
 
All of this would have been utterly unintelligible to the early Church, which took seriously the teaching of Jesus and Paul that the dead are neither dead nor gods, and that the glory of the Christian life is to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2).
 


That’s why, for as long as the Church has been in existence, she has prayed and sought the prayers of her members both in heaven and on earth, especially those of our Mother Mary. The Church knows that the honor, glory, and duty of the Body of Christ is to be like Christ. And Christ is, supremely, the Burden-Bearer. Therefore, those like Him are given strong backs by His Spirit to bear the weight of the members of the Body. Mary’s back, like that of so many glorious peasant women, is very, very strong with the grace of God. So we turn to her and ask her to pray for us, as we ask each other to pray.
 
But what about all those Old Testament commands about trying to contact the dead?
 
And when they say to you, “Consult the mediums and the wizards who chirp and mutter,” should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living? (Is 8:19)
 
Quite so. Which is why the Church still forbids such things:
 
All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to “unveil” the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone. (Catechism 2116)
 
The thing is, prayer to the saints is not “conjuring up the dead.” And I can tell the dubious Protestant why this is, as soon as he tells me the difference between magic and miracles, or prophecy and divination.
 
Or, to save time, I’ll just go ahead and tell him now: The difference is Jesus Christ. Such actions may look extremely similar, yet they are different, as Jesus Himself made clear to the people who claimed He was acting by the power of Beelzebub (Mk 3:22-27). The difference between such things is the same as the difference between consulting the dead and prayer to the saints: It is the truth that things are connected in Christ and only in Christ. And that connection connects even the living on earth and the living in Heaven.
 
How do we know this? The Bible tells us so. For it tells us we are members not merely of Jesus, but of “one another” (Rom 12:5). It tells us nothing can separate the saints from the love of God in Christ, not even death (Rom 8:38-39). In other words, death cannot slice the body of Christ in two. We remain in communion with one another despite death, because Christ our Head lives.
 
 
It’s precisely because of this connectedness through Christ the Head that Catholic teaching forbids “conjuring the dead” as strongly as Deuteronomy 18:10. For it forbids any attempt to make an end run around Jesus Christ and acquire knowledge and control from creatures apart from the life of the Blessed Trinity. All such attempts constitute idolatry.
 
But communion with the saints through Christ? Not a problem. The reasoning of the Church from remotest antiquity was simple: If I can ask you — my brother or sister in Christ, who happen to be walking around on this earth — to pray for me, then why can’t I ask my brother or sister (or mother) in Christ to do the same?
 
Because the dead are dead? Not according to Jesus Christ:
 
[H]ave you not read what was said to you by God, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He is not God of the dead, but of the living”? (Mt 22:31-32)
 
Because they don’t know what’s happening on earth? The extremely dead Moses seemed to be pretty acutely aware of what was happening on earth when he appeared to Jesus and the apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration and “spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Lk 9:31).
 
Because they don’t care? It runs rather counter to the logic of the entire tradition to say that the saints who have been perfected into the image and likeness of the God who is love will choose to express that love by being transformed into heavenly couch potatoes who do not give a rip about their suffering brothers and sisters on earth and who respond to the cries of the martyrs with, “I’m all right, Jack. I’ve got mine. Tough luck for you.” Certainly the Letter to the Hebrews does not envision such a preposterous scenario, but instead sees us urged on with the love and prayers of the saints when it tells us:
 
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:1-2)
 
And again when it concludes this passage by saying:
 
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.
 
The author of Hebrews, like the apostles at the Transfiguration, has a lively awareness that the saints in heaven are passionately involved with the progress of the Church on earth.
 
And because they are “just men made perfect” by Christ, it follows that what Christ does, they are doing also. Therefore, as He intercedes for us and teaches us to intercede for one another even before we have been made perfect, how much more shall we do so once we no longer have our own sins to continually grapple with? That is why the early Church immediately began to implore the intercession of the saints in heaven; and that is why, of course, the Church has always sought the intercession of the greatest of God’s saints: the Blessed Virgin Mary.
 
 
What should be far more striking to us is not that the blessed in heaven can intercede for us, but that they should do so at all. Enabling the saints to pray for those on earth is a mere matter of God’s omnipotent power. The God who could, if He chose, raise up sons to Abraham from the stones or raise Lazarus from the dead is not going to be stymied by the question of how to enable a deceased saint to pray for us, or how we might pray for the dead. He is God after all. He can work a hundred miracles before breakfast without breaking a sweat. Indeed, it cost Him nothing, so far as we can tell, to create the entire universe.
 
But it cost Him crucifixion to free us from our sins. That’s why the Fathers of the Church said that the forgiveness of sins was a greater miracle than the creation of the universe. Indeed, it’s a miracle most have a hard time believing at this very hour.
 
Oh sure, we love hearing about the forgiveness of our own sins and the sins of people who are near and dear to us. But we are much more reluctant to go whole hog with the strange, counterintuitive insight of Christianity that nobody is more needy of prayer than those who least deserve it. We, of course, enjoy colorful Bible stories with charming Dickensian “sinners” with hearts of gold as much as the next guy — because we don’t really think of, say, cuddly little Zaccheus the tax collector or rough-but-true-blue Saul of Tarsus as, you know, sinners. No — they, along with all those hookers-with-hearts-of-gold and honorable thieves and sundry representatives of the Lollipop Guild were diamonds-in-the-rough. Good eggs who just needed a little straightening out. They were not evil, despicable sons of bitches like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or Hitler, for whom death was too good and for whom thoughts of prayer and charity are a complete waste of time. There are “sinners,” and then there are sinners. Jesus came for the former, not that latter — at least if we listen to pop Christian culture and not to the teaching of the Church.
 
In short, we can forget that when Jesus described the people He came for as “sinners,” He meant it. Real sinners. People who were not merely scruffy and sweet, but real lowdown scum whom you and I would not want to be around at all, because they have done despicable things in the dead of night that they don’t like to talk about. It is for these people, as much as for plump suburbanites with respectable sins, that God comes.
 
And these people are us — you and me. For we are, apart from grace, as fully hell-worthy as some vile, beheading thug in a cave in Tora Bora or a Nazi maggot hiding in a bunker in Berlin. The glorious thing is that God has indeed come for us and that, so far from sending us from His sight, He has bidden us to draw near. It is the whole reason He came for us when He took flesh from Mary, who prays for us wholly undeserving sinners, that we receive the grace of Him who died for us while we were yet sinners responsible for the nails driven through His sinless feet and hands.

Mark P. Shea

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Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

  • georgie-ann

    Psalm 107:

    17″Fools, because of their transgression,
    And because of their iniquities, were afflicted…

    19 Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,
    And He saved them out of their distresses.

    20 He sent His Word and healed them,
    And delivered them from their destructions.

    21 Oh, that men would give thanks to the LORD for His goodness,
    And for His wonderful works to the children of men!

    22 Let them sacrifice the sacrifices of thanksgiving,
    And declare His works with rejoicing.”

    Thank you, Lord,…

  • Bob Stone, CM

    Your comments hit the mark wonderfully. In my own experience, those Christians who practice intercessory prayer directly are much more in tune with the theological themes you develop, and they accept readily the intercessory prayer of those who have gone before us, and they seem more open to Catholic practices. This seems to happen especially among more conservative Episcopalians. My own personal take on history is that Protestant reformers were so horrified by what they viewed as simony in the Roman Catholic practice of indulgences that they discarded intercessory prayer, many devotions, the celebration of the Eucharist as the renewal of the sacrifice of the Cross, and even meditation and contemplative prayer for a “sola Scriptura” life that had rigorous following of commandments tied to a “certainty of salvation” that vitiated the need for the above practices, as well as the “five lesser sacraments.”

  • georgie-ann

    don’t you also think that “spiritual life” and perceptions must be very different for Protestants, who neither believe in nor receive the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist?,…it must be like living in a different world,…how could they really understand?,…

  • Pammie

    Having just had a conversation about this the other day, I don’t think many protestants can fathom the difference between “praying” and “worship/adoration”. They seem to have the idea that they are one and the same . Thus asking intercession from the saints somehow displaces God or that is what I have understood them to believe. One cannot dislodge this firm conviction with any amount of reasoning. Somehow the phrase “willful ignorance” comes to mind, but I expect that is a phrase which belongs to the past just as the terms Church Militant, Church Suffering and Church Triumphant. Very interesting commentary.

  • Martial Artist

    Pammie,

    Having been raised in a Protestant church (LCMS) and spent 38 years in the Episcopal Church before hearing and heeding our Lord’s call to me to “swim the Tiber,” my experience tells me that one of the things cradle Catholics do that (very subtly) miscommunicates what Mark has elucidated so clearly, is to say that we “pray to the saints.”

    Now I recognize that the word pray, in English, has as one of its meaning “to ask.” But that usage is, for most Americans an archaic usage that does not immediately connote what it did in earlier (e.g., Elizabethan) times. Ergo, when your average Protestant hears that we “pray to the saints” they tend to fail to understand the distinction between that and “praying to Jesus,” or to the Father or the Holy Spirit. If one says instead that we “ask the saints to intercede on our behalf” or any similar construct that communicates that we request the saints’ intercessions for us, the reaction will often be less adamant. In fact, in talking with Protestant friends, when they bring up the fact that we Catholics “pray to saints” instead of praying directly to Jesus or the Father, it immediately makes me aware that I have been presented with a “teachable moment” because I can then ask (a) whether they believe in the communion of saints, (b) whether they ask their fellow Christians to pray for them, and (c) (assuming affirmative answers to the former) why they think it inappropriate to ask those who are already in God’s presence to pray for them, which is all that faithful Catholics are doing when they “pray to the saints.”

    To be sure, this doesn’t work with all Protestants, but I think a more precise and descriptive construct than just “praying to the saints” is less likely to cause confusion.

    And thank you Mr. Shea for this clear and timely article. (And nice chatting with you after 10:30 Mass this past Sunday.)

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  • Pammie

    Dear Martial Artist thank you for your suggestions and explanation. It makes a great deal of difference whether the inquirer is truly interested in one’s answers or only interested in doing a bit of papist-baiting.I suspect I had the latter on my hands most recently. It’s such a comfort to know that one has all of heaven willing to pray for one’s intentions, purely for the love of God. Lucky, lucky us!

  • Bob Stone, CM

    These perceptions certainly are different today because of the refocusing of the doctrine of the Real Presence, always believed in the Catholic Church, but expressed in different ways. I have Protestant friends who have a truly mystical vision of the world of prayer and grace, some of whom are Epsicopalina, some of whom are charismatic evangelical Christians. They understand a perduring presence and a true, real, and substantial presence, but they are slow to go as far as Catholics go for fear of attaching “worship in spirit and in truth” (in Latin, that which is “rationabilis”) to a thing. I try to help the process by insisting that true, real, and substantial presence makes possible the interpersonal presence of Jesus Christ, who has died, has risen, and is now in glory.

  • georgie-ann

    i became an adult convert to Catholicism over 30 years ago,…and prior to this had a secular & mostly (if anything) Protestant background, including Charismatic & Bible emphasis,…

    in my life there were some tragedies, and i’ve tried to explain to Catholics how absolutely horrible and painful it was to have to cope with these things just as secular realities (stoicism, and practically NO consolations),…or at a minimum, walking in “naked faith” (trusting God, but also basically NO tangible consolations),…

    how that all changed with the ability to participate in the Holy Communion of the Catholic Church!,…to be able to pray for the deceased (as on November 1st & 2nd, “All Saints” & “All Souls” Days),…to be participating in (& receiving) the Real Presence of Christ at Communion & the Communion of Saints at every Mass,…

    gradually the regular reception of Christ into my body & soul completed a wonderful healing process that never even began to happen until i became a fully practicing communicant of the Catholic Church,…this is something i could never have imagined happening prior to conversion,…believe me, life for me was unending psychological pain–more buried sometimes than others,…& in many ways i was barely coping,…now i can hardly remember these things usually, and in deep places peace, love, joy, hope & faith have replaced the former wounds of loss,…

    “Eye has not seen & ear has not heard what God has in store for those who love Him,” comes to mind,…

    based on my own experience, i think that even the Protestant communities like the ones that you mention, perhaps at best are able to make a sort of “spiritual communion” by faith & that’s good,…i think i was doing that too,…but nothing, nothing compares to the security and spiritual health of building up the body (& blood, via the priest)) of Christ within oneself,…

    at least, this has been my experience,…i don’t think non-communicants can begin to imagine what it is like really,…and it is sad that doctrine and fear keep them away from a tremendous blessing,…

  • John

    SICUT CERVA DESIDERAT AQUAM; TAMQUAM ANIMA MEA DESIDERAT TE ,O DOMINE.

  • georgie-ann

    1 Corinthians 2: 9 (in context)

    Spiritual Wisdom

    6 “However, we speak wisdom among those who are mature, yet not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7 But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, 8 which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
    9 But as it is written:

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