Is Asking St. Faustina to Pray for Us a 'Pagan' Practice?
Robert Stackpole Answers Your Divine Mercy Questions
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Oct 26, 2011)
Last week we had a look at the Catholic understanding of how Church doctrine legitimately "develops" over time. That is to say, how it develops from things implicit, or in "seed" form, in the teachings of the apostles, to the full flowering of those doctrines — the deeper understanding of them and the clearer articulation of them — in later centuries. We looked at examples such as the Church's teachings on purgatory, on slavery, and even on the doctrine that mercy is the greatest attribute of God.
A reader named Felicia recently emailed me a question on a closely related topic. She wrote:
When I told my Protestant friend I was going to pray to St. Faustina for her, she told me not to bother because she didn't think God would like it. She said that praying to saints is like the ancient Romans and pagans used to do, praying to their gods, and that God only wants us to pray to Him. She says it's in the Bible. Is she right about that? I don't think so, but I don't know how to respond to her.
Well, Felicia, what your friend is probably referring to are the places where the Bible tells us to "worship" God alone, such as in the Ten Commandments. But Catholics do not "worship" the saints, and to be precise, we do not even "pray to" the saints. Rather, we "invoke" the saints, asking them to pray for us. Let me try to explain in detail what I mean.
The English word "worship" comes from an old Anglo-Saxon word implying devotion to the source of all worth and goodness. But the Catholic Church teaches that the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints certainly are not the source of all worth and goodness in the universe; they are just channels, vessels of God's grace. We call them saints, meaning "holy ones," in much the same sense that all Christians speak of the "Holy Bible" or "Holy Communion," because these, too, are vessels — channels of God's grace to us. As St. Ambrose (340-397) once wrote: "Mary is the Temple of God, not the God of the Temple."
In technical, theological language we say we offer "worship" (in Latin, latria) to God alone, but what we offer to any created excellence fashioned by God is merely proper "veneration" or "honor" (in Latin, dulia). This is especially true of God's greatest masterpieces of grace in this world: His saints. Honoring the saints no more distracts us from the true worship of God than delighting and praising an artist's best work distracts us from the proper appreciation of the artist himself. Clearly, the honor given to the excellence of artwork passes on and glorifies the artist and gives us all the more reason to appreciate and praise him. In a similar way, God is the artist of souls, by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, He has fashioned no greater masterpiece in all of creation than the mother of the Son of God on earth, Mary of Nazareth, she who was "full of grace" (Lk 1:28).
Felicia, again, with regard to the matter of the invocation of the saints, this is very different from praying to pagan gods and goddesses. In fact, it is another one of those legitimate "developments of doctrine" that we talked about in last week's column. It actually falls into the category (discussed last week) of a "spiritual development" — one that arises in the Church from the deepest spiritual insights of the saints and of the People of God as a whole, led by the Holy Spirit to draw deeper connections between aspects of Scripture and Sacred Tradition, connections not fully appreciated before. That is why we have no record of the apostles, or even the second generation of Christians, asking the saints in heaven to pray for them. But it was implicit in the faith of the apostles all along; it just took several generations before those implications were fully understood and articulated.
There are several indications right in the New Testament itself that the saints in heaven know of our struggles and prayers on earth, and join their powerful intercessory prayers with our own. Hebrews 12:1 says, "Seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses [that is, by all the heroes and martyrs of the Faith mentioned in chapter 11], let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us." So, the early Christians believed that the martyrs and heroes of faith from the past are a good example for us, and they surround us like a crowd cheering for the runners at an Olympic race! James 5:16 tells us that "the prayer of a good man has powerful effects." He gives as an example the powerful intercessions of the prophet Elijah. This reminds us that the most powerful intercessors in the Church are those most advanced in holiness. In Revelation 5:8 and 8:3-4 we are told that in heaven the elders and the angels offer up the prayers of the saints (on earth) as incense before the throne of God. This implies that the angels and the elders (that is, holy Christian leaders of the past) know of our prayers on earth and join their prayers with ours now.
Put the implications of these Scripture passages together and we can surely say that it is probable that since the angels and saints can see us, since they care about us, and since they can and do pray for us, we can ask them to do so even more, and we will be heard. That is as far as the Bible alone can take us, but it surely at least establishes that the invocation of the angels and saints is consonant with Scripture.
The first surviving written record of a prayer addressed specifically to the Blessed Virgin Mary is dated ca. 250 A.D.:
We fly to your patronage
O holy Mother of God.
Despise not our petitions
in our necessities,
but deliver us from all dangers,
O ever glorious and blessed Virgin.
By the fourth century the public invocation of the angels and saints was universally present in the life of the Church, both east and west, and there is no evidence at all of any division or dispute about this practice in the early Christian community. The saints and the Fathers were unanimous in their acceptance of the practice. In fact, many of the early Fathers were quite adamant about rejecting pagan influences on the life of the Church. Why did none of them claim that this universal custom of invoking the angels and saints was a pagan corruption of the faith? Evidently, they did not believe it was a pagan practice at all; rather, they saw the prayer-partnership between struggling Christians on earth with the angels and saints in heaven as a clear expression of the truth that in the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, death has no dominion, and that we are One Body in Christ in His Spirit, whether we are on earth, in heaven, or in purgatory.
Besides, the invocation of Mary, the angels and the saints fits well with the wider pattern of Christian doctrine — an important requirement for all true doctrinal developments in the life of the Church. The Bible itself says that our growth in faith and holiness is aided by the intercessions of the other members of the Body of Christ (Eph 6:18; I Thess 3:11-13; I Tim 2:1-4), and the Church on earth and heaven are evidently very closely united (Heb 12: 22-24). It is hard to see how asking the angels and saints to pray for us amounts to pagan idolatry, while asking one's family members and friends for their prayers is not. Both acts are based on similar principles of charity and intercession. Idolatry would only occur if one believed that a saint or angel would give you something that our Lord would not (as if praying to an alternate god). But most Catholics believe no such thing. They know that authentic prayers addressed to the angels and saints are no more than requests made to them to pray for us to Jesus Christ. The final address of our prayers is still the same, just as in the "Hail Mary" we say: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us, sinners, now and at the hour of our death."
So, Felicia, fear not: the Catholic Church is one family, in heaven, on earth, and in purgatory. Mary is your Spiritual Mother, and the angels and saints are your spiritual brothers and sisters. It is your birthright as a Catholic to ask for the prayers of other members of your universal family.
I will never forget taking part in the wonderful Mass for the canonization of St. Faustina in Rome in the year 2000, and listening to Blessed Pope John Paul II refer to her at one point as "my dear Sister Faustina." She is indeed our sister in heaven, and as she said in her Diary, she longs to be able to help us by her prayers. "My mission will not come to an end upon my death," she wrote, "[for] I will draw aside for you the veils of heaven to convince you of God's goodness" (Diary of St. Faustina, 281). She has been doing that for us all ever since.
Thanks be to God for the loving care of the angels and saints for us as we journey on our earthly pilgrimage, until we join them one day in our heavenly Home!
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
View archived Q&A columns.