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I didn't grow up with the saints. Role models, yes...people who lived good lives and had characters that we should emulate, definitely. But saints? Baptists don't really do saints. We were a saint-free household and a saint-free church.
As I followed my fascination with liturgy into Episcopalian and finally Catholic churches, I started to see them. The Saints. Those holy men and women whose faithful lives and devotion to God had earned them spots on the calendar, stained glass windows, holy cards, dedicated prayers and feasts and customs. A whole tribe of people who were the Church, too, just on the other side of the veil. A cloud of witnesses who had been where we are, walked where we walk, struggled as we struggle. They were human. They were imperfect. And yet they sought God earnestly and were blessed.
Saints come from all walks of life. Some of the earliest ones were Jesus' close friends, many of whom were martyred for their faith. Throughout history many of the saints were persecuted and killed for the sake of Christ, yet they persevered. They received the faith, and they handed it down. We are called to do no less. It is grace that saves us- thanks be to God!- but each of us is called to holiness. The saints are men and women who followed that path to holiness all the way to the end and who now cheer us on from the other side as we travel our own paths, striving all the while to be more like Christ.
When my friend James died last year, I saw this concept more clearly than ever. He played a giant role in my faith development during his life on earth, and we stayed in touch through the years, sending long e-mails back and forth as we debated theological issues (and as he tirelessly answered my endless questions). James is in heaven now with God, probably enjoying some spicy food and perfect weather on His back porch. I imagine they talk about all kinds of things (as James was never really short on things to talk about on earth), but I don't for a minute think that James has forgotten about those of us he left behind here. I know he sees our struggles, and I know he remembers to mention them when God comes over for dinner. (Or coffee, or whatever. I'm no theologian.)
Thankfully, there are many theologians that have done plenty of writing on this topic. Church teaching on saints tells us that they intercede for us in Heaven, just as they did on earth:
956. The intercession of the saints. “Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness.... They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus.... So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped.” [Lumen Gentium 49; cf. 1 Tim 2:5.]
2683. "The witnesses who have preceded us into the kingdom, [Cf. Heb 12:1 .] especially those whom the Church recognizes as saints, share in the living tradition of prayer by the example of their lives, the transmission of their writings, and their prayer today. They contemplate God, praise him and constantly care for those whom they have left on earth. When they entered into the joy of their Master, they were 'put in charge of many things.' [Cf. Mt 25:21.] Their intercession is their most exalted service to God's plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world."from The Catechism of the Catholic Church
When new Christians enter the Church through baptism at Easter Vigil, we sing a Litany of the Saints...kind of a holy roll call of the names of those who have come before us on the journey. It is one of my favorite moments in the liturgy, as everyone sings together the familiar (Peter, James, John, Andrew) and the less-familiar (Chrysogonus?) names of our ancestors in the faith. At the end of the song, the names of the catechumens (new Christians) are sung, making them part of a long line of the faithful throughout the ages. I love that we bring in the catechumens through baptism in Christ, singing together, under the watchful eyes of so many who have lived their lives for Him. We invoke their names, and they are part of our gathered community, praying with us over those to be baptized as we sing, "Pray for us...all you holy men and women, pray for us."
It is traditional in Catholic families for each person to have a patron saint, a man or woman whose intercession we request and whose example we emulate. Sometimes, these patrons are chosen at birth (or at baptism, when a saint's name is often conferred). Sometimes, a child adopts a patron at the sacrament of Confirmation, taking a saint's name as her own when she claims her faith as an adult. Sometimes, we develop relationships with saints in unexpected ways as we grow in our faith. Maybe their writings speak to us, or maybe their history is similar to ours. Other times, there might not be a rational explanation for the connection we feel with a certain saint. Whatever the reason, I'm always grateful that our tradition recognizes the ranks of men and women who have come before us and who still intercede for us in prayer. The bond of love forged by Christ is unbroken through time, and the death of these saints did not make them work any less tirelessly to build His kingdom. We can count on them for help.
Don't Catholics pray to saints?
Well, yes and no. We don't pray to saints in the same way we pray to God. We can go directly to God the Father with any request and "boldly approach his throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need" (Hebrews 4:16), but we also have the gift of a community of holy men and women who are part of the Body of Christ. They want to see us succeed. They gave their lives in service and sacrifice to the Kingdom of God. Death is no barrier to their work on behalf of Christ or His Church, and we are free to approach them and ask for their intercession on our behalf. This is not idolatry. We do not worship saints. We worship only God. We do so, though, with the knowledge that the saints worship the very same God but have the benefit of doing so face to face.
In my little domestic church, each family member has a patron saint, and there are other important saints that we celebrate during the liturgical year. On the feast day of each person's patron, we celebrate by having a festive meal together, complete with decorations and our best dishes. We read or tell the story of the saint's life and display a holy card or icon with his or her picture. Sometimes, we do a special activity to remember something specific about the saint. There is always cake or a special dessert, kind of like a birthday. Because attending Mass is difficult enough on the weekends right now, we don't go to Mass on our saint days (although I would eventually like to start that tradition when the children are older). We do try to perform some act of service to others or take some action to build the Kingdom of God as a reminder that we are all called to holiness and lives of service.
My own patron saint, St. Therese of Lisieux, famously said before she died, "I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth." All Christians believe that we can and should pray for one another here on earth. Why should we stop praying for the ones we love once we have died?
As as ecumenical Catholic Christian, I know that Catholic devotion to saints has sometimes been a barrier to dialogue with other Christian traditions. I see our relationships with saints as a way to build connectedness throughout the body of Christ, continuing the line of faithful discipleship from its origin with the Apostles straight through to modern times. We have much to learn from them and from the examples of their lives. My relationship with God is not diluted or confused by my relating to His saints; rather, it is deepened, enriched and revitalized by their wisdom and faithfulness.
All you holy men and women, pray for us!
What's your take on the communion of saints? Do you have questions about this part of the Catholic tradition? I would love to hear your comments.