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.