When we are going through life’s problems and trials, it is very comforting to have family, friends and neighbors pray with us and for us. God expects us to pray for each other. But we need to ask an important question about prayer. Is it possible to get help from those who are in Heaven, like Mary or the saints / believers who have gone on before us? The Catholic Church teaches the concept of “the Communion of Saints” which includes the idea that you can indeed pray to, and receive help from, certain saints (and even angels) in Heaven. But is this true? Is this scriptural? Let us look deeper into this topic and respond to some of the Catholic arguments for praying to Mary, saints and angels.
CATHOLIC CLAIM – PROTESTANTS DON’T SEEM TO UNDERSTAND THE CATHOLIC CONCEPT OF PRAYER. TO PRAY SIMPLY MEANS “TO ASK” OR “TO BESEECH.” FOR INSTANCE, THE TERM “PRAY TELL” IS SIMPLY AN EXPRESSION THAT SOME WILL USE WHEN ASKING SOMETHING. EVEN IN THE BIBLE, WE SEE THE TERM “I PRAY THEE” WHEN ASKING FOR A FAVOR. SO, WHEN WE PRAY TO MARY OR THE SAINTS, WE ARE SIMPLY ASKING THEM TO PRAY TO GOD ON OUR BEHALF. SO PRAYER IS JUST ASKING.
First, if the word “pray” just means “to ask,” then the words of Jesus, “Ask in prayer” (Matthew 21:22) would simply be redundant.
Using the logic of this Catholic argument, if you “asked” me for any kind of help, wouldn’t you be praying to me? When Jesus “asked” the woman at the well for a drink (John 4:7), was the Son of God praying to her? Or, when Jesus “asked” His disciples for something to eat (Luke 24:41), was He praying to them? Of course not. That would be absurd.
Second, although asking is one component of prayer, Catholics should be well aware that the biblical concept of prayer cannot be reduced to merely asking, since prayer can include praise, thanksgiving, meditation, etc.
Third, the language involved in some of the common prayers to the saints certainly seems to be more than just “asking for prayer.” A brief search on the internet will reveal that much of the language used in praying to the saints seems to contain excessive devotion, and oftentimes appears to be asking the saint himself / herself to fill the need (instead of God), especially some of the prayers directed to Mary. After reading a number of these, it would become easy to completely miss the idea that one is simply “asking them to pray.”
Finally, we must remember that the Catholic Church teaches that there are three different levels of honor when a Catholic prays (which we will discuss further in just a minute). Each level carries with it a corresponding and increasing attitude of honor. To keep things simple for now, there is “praying with ‘little’ honor”, “praying with ‘bigger’ honor,” and “praying with ‘greatest’ honor.” All three are “asking,” but is all their asking, at each individual level, the same? If it is, then how is one level different from another? If “pray” only means ask, then having these different levels of honor is meaningless. The simple fact that Catholics recognize different levels of prayer destroys this silly notion that “pray just means ask.”
To be fair, I don’t know of any official Catholic sources that make this argument (I don’t think that they do), but let’s hope that the many Catholic apologists who do use this faulty “pray just means ask” argument would be more honest and stop using it.
CATHOLIC CLAIM – WHEN ADDRESSING MARY OR THE SAINTS, WE’RE NOT REALLY PRAYING *TO* THEM, WE’RE JUST ASKING THEM TO PRAY *FOR* US.
But note these statements from official Catholic sources:
Mary is the perfect Orans (pray-er), a figure of the Church. When we pray TO her, we are adhering with her to the plan of the Father, who sends his Son to save all men. Like the beloved disciple we welcome Jesus' mother into our homes, for she has become the mother of all the living. We can pray with and TO her. The prayer of the Church is sustained by the prayer of Mary and united with it in hope. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC #2679 – Emphasis added)
One prays TO the Blessed Virgin, TO the angels and saints in heaven, but only in the sense that they may intercede before God for us. (New Catholic Encyclopedia , Volume 11, page 673 –Emphasis added)
…the saints intercede for us in virtue of His merits, not their own. Consequently when we pray TO them, it is to ask for their intercession in our behalf, not to expect that they can bestow gifts on us of their own power, or obtain them in virtue of their own merit. (New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, online, under the topic “Prayer” – Emphasis added)
Let all the children of the Catholic Church… continue to venerate, invoke and pray TO the most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God… (Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, Apostolic Constitution, December 8, 1854 - Emphasis added)
It is clear from these sources that Catholics can and do, indeed, pray TO Mary and the saints. In fact, the Church encourages it. To deny this is simply playing word games and ignoring official teaching. So, Catholics need to stop repeating this falsehood, also.
Ok, at this point many Catholics will say, “But our prayer to them is a ‘lesser’ type of prayer than what is offered to God”… which leads us to the next Catholic claim:
CATHOLIC CLAIM – YOU ARE CONFUSING PRAYER WITH WORSHIP. PROTESTANTS ARE UNABLE OR UNWILLING TO RECOGNIZE THAT THERE ARE DISTINCTIONS BETWEEN THE TYPES OF HONOR WE GIVE TO SAINTS, MARY, AND TO GOD. PRAYER TO THE SAINTS IS CALLED “DULIA.” PRAYER TO MARY IS ON A HIGHER LEVEL AND IS KNOWN AS “HYPERDULIA.” BUT WHEN WE PRAY TO GOD, WE USE “LATRIA,” THE HIGHEST FORM OF HONOR (i.e., WORSHIP). WE DO NOT *WORSHIP* MARY OR THE SAINTS, BUT ONLY GOD.
In the Bible, prayer is always an act of WORSHIP. All throughout Scripture, people worshipped through prayer and their prayers were always directed to God. We find not one single case of anyone in the Bible praying (with God’s approval) to anyone other than God. No angels, saints, elders, patriarchs, prophets, kings… no one. These may have been honored, but never were they prayed to. It is ok to give honor to whom honor is due (Romans 13:7), but praying to someone (dead or alive) is beyond honor; it is worship. In spite of Catholic claims to the contrary, prayer to saints is NOT the same as just asking a friend to pray for you. It is idolatry.
The Jews were God’s chosen people in the Old Testament, yet they continually fell into idolatry. What makes anyone think today that they can, while praying, easily distinguish between these three forms of “honor” (dulia, hyperdulia, latria) and move from one to the other without falling into the same problem that the Old Testament Jews did? Even in the case of Moses’ brazen serpent (which God had him erect for the people), we find that the honor that was first directed toward the statue turned into something more. It was later destroyed because it had become an idol to which the people burned incense. (2 Kings 18:4)
And just for the record, the Catholic Church admits that “dulia” and “hyperdulia” are forms of worship. (See the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, under “Beatification and Canonization”)
CATHOLIC CLAIM – IF ALL WORSHIP MUST BE DIRECTED TO GOD ALONE, THEN WHAT ABOUT THE STATEMENT THAT SPOUSES MAKE TO EACH OTHER IN THE ANGLICAN WEDDING CEREMONY: “WITH MY BODY, I THEE WORSHIP”? (CHARLES AND DIANA REPORTEDLY USED THIS FORM IN THEIR WEDDING.) ALSO, IN THE UK, JUDGES ARE GIVEN WORSHIP AND ARE EVEN ADDRESSED, “MY WORSHIP.”
But we need to realize that the biblical concept of worship is not based on Anglican wedding vows or British courtroom practices. The biblical concept is that prayer is recognized as worship and is clearly illustrated by multiple examples of praying only to God.
There are some basic underlying assumptions here with the concept of praying to saints:
1) That these saints which are being prayed to are actually in Heaven
2) That they can actually hear us when we pray
3) That they can actually do something about our situation (offer aid or intercession for us)
Concerning #1 above, how does one know with certainty if the person to whom they are praying is actually in Heaven? Suppose this “saint” is actually in Hell and therefore an enemy of God? Is it acceptable to pray to God’s enemies? Suppose that there was hidden “mortal sin” in this “saint’s” life that only God knew about? If this is indeed the case, then there are some serious repercussions. Remember, the Lord God is a jealous God (Exodus 20:5).
Concerning #2 and #3, maybe God allows all the saints to hear our prayers. Maybe only some of them can hear us, or maybe He allows none of them to hear us. We just don’t know. It would be speculation. Saints hearing prayer is simply an assumption for Catholics, and there is no clear biblical proof for it. Nor is there any biblical reason to believe that even if they could hear us, that they could do anything about it anyway.
CATHOLIC CLAIM – BUT THE SAINTS IN HEAVEN ARE NOT DEAD; THEY ARE MORE ALIVE AND RIGHTEOUS THAN ANY OF US HERE ON EARTH. AND SURELY, WITH THEIR EXALTED STATUS, GOD GIVES THEM SPECIAL POWER TO INTERCEDE FOR US. DON’T YOU THINK IT’S POSSIBLE FOR GOD TO GRANT THIS SPECIAL ABILITY? WHY DO YOU PROTESTANTS LIMIT GOD?
Yes, it’s possible, but “possible” does not make it true. It is also “possible” that God made the moon out of green cheese, but that doesn’t mean that He has. Of course, God is able to grant them “special powers,” but God’s ability is not the issue. The question is not, “What can God do?” It’s “What did God do?” Restricting our prayer life to the multitude of examples in Scripture (where prayer to saints is never found) is not “limiting” God.
But is it Biblical?
CATHOLIC CLAIM – PRAYING TO SAINTS IS INDEED A BIBLICAL PRACTICE. REVELATION 5:8 SAYS, “AND WHEN HE HAD TAKEN THE BOOK, THE FOUR LIVING CREATURES AND THE TWENTY-FOUR ELDERS FELL DOWN BEFORE THE LAMB, HAVING EACH ONE A HARP, AND GOLDEN BOWLS FULL OF INCENSE, WHICH ARE THE PRAYERS OF THE SAINTS.” (SEE ALSO REVELATION 8:3-4) IF THE SAINTS IN HEAVEN ARE OFFERING OUR PRAYERS TO GOD, THEN THEY MUST ALSO BE AWARE OF OUR PRAYERS AND ARE INTERCEDING FOR US.
Again, this conclusion is pure speculation. This does not mean that the saints (on earth) prayed to them, or that the saints in Heaven could even hear their prayers; it just means that God allowed them to “handle” the bowls of prayers. This says absolutely nothing about us being free to pray to Mary, angels, or to saints in Heaven. It never suggests that the prayers were ever directed to them.
According to Catholic logic, since the prayers in the bowls of Revelation 5:8 and 8:3-4 were (supposedly) directed to the beings who carried them, then the WRATH in the bowls of Revelation 16:1-12 must have ALSO been directed to the angels who carried those. But I don’t think that anyone would agree with this conclusion. So, this Catholic argument is another one that fails.
We see no reason to believe that there is anyone in Heaven to whom prayer is directed but God. Look what Psalm 73:25 says: "Whom have I in heaven BUT THEE? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee." In Scripture, we are never encouraged to pray to anyone in Heaven, except God. Not to saints, not to Mary, not to angels. There are hundreds of verses on prayer in the Bible, but there are absolutely none where a believer prays to anyone other than God. We are never told that heavenly saints intercede for us by their prayers. But we are told that Jesus Christ intercedes for us (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25).
CATHOLIC CLAIM – ANOTHER VERSE IS PSALM 103:20-21, “BLESS THE LORD, YOU HIS ANGELS, MIGHTY IN STRENGTH, WHO PERFORM HIS WORD, OBEYING THE VOICE OF HIS WORD! BLESS THE LORD, ALL YOU HIS HOSTS, YOU WHO SERVE HIM DOING HIS WILL.” (SEE ALSO PSALM 148:2) THIS IS A CLEAR INDICATION THAT THE BIBLE DIRECTS US TO PRAY TO HIS ANGELS.
These verses are not directing us to pray to the angels, but the psalmist is just using a rhetorical device to exhort all (including the Heavenly hosts) to praise and exalt God, because He is worthy. Note the next verse (103:22), which encourages His "works" (not just living creatures) to also praise Him. Does that mean that we pray to all His "works" also? What about when people (on earth) are admonished to praise Him? Are we praying to those people?” Psalm 148:3 is telling the sun, moon and stars to praise Him, also. But no one is expected to pray to these.
CATHOLIC CLAIM – BUT HEBREWS 12:1 TELLS US OF THE “GREAT CLOUD OF WITNESSES” FROM HEAVEN THAT SURROUNDS US. THESE ARE THE SAINTS WHO ARE PRAYING FOR US. ALSO, IN VERSES 22-24, THE WRITER OF HEBREWS IS TELLING US TO NOT ONLY COME TO JESUS AND TO GOD, BUT ALSO TO ANGELS, TO THE CHURCH OF THE FIRSTBORN AND TO THE SPIRITS OF RIGHTEOUS MEN MADE PERFECT (i.e., THE SAINTS). SO, GOD EXPECTS US TO DIRECT OUR PRAYER TO ALL OF THESE.
Let’s first look at the verses mentioned:
Hebrews 12:1 - Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.
Hebrews 12:22-24 - But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.
Concerning Hebrews 12:1, this verse is a continuation of the previous chapter, and the context is not so much about the saints in Heaven “observing” our lives on earth as it is of their being “examples” to us on earth – they made it through in spite of persecutions, and we are encouraged to do the same, e.g., “let us run with endurance…”
It is true that the angels and saints in Heaven may be aware of some things here on earth, but if this passage really is about us praying to saints this would be a great time to mention their “intercession.” But we don’t see anything here about asking those saints for prayer, or anything about Noah (11:7) or Rahab (11:31) wanting to intercede for us. Once again, I am not aware of any Catholic who prays to any of these heroes of faith listed in chapter 11. So why do Catholics insist that this passage proves the concept of prayer to saints if they never pray to these?
Concerning Hebrews 12:22-24, and our “coming to” Jesus and the saints in prayer, this passage is speaking of our entering into the new and better covenant. It is not permitting us to pray to angels and saints. If you take this to its logical conclusion, then we should also ask the “Heavenly Jerusalem,” “Mount Zion” and the “sprinkled blood” for prayer, also. If we “come to” all of these equally in the sense you’re suggesting, then they should all be prayed to. Catholics take this totally out of context, since they are equating “come to” with “pray to.” But this is not the case. Once again, there is nothing here about prayer to, or intercession from, saints and angels.
CATHOLIC CLAIM – BUT WE HAVE EXAMPLES IN THE BIBLE OF THOSE WHO SPOKE TO PEOPLE WHO HAVE GONE ON BEFORE US TO HEAVEN. FOR INSTANCE, WHEN JESUS WAS UP ON THE MOUNT OF TRANSFIGURATION (MATTHEW 17:3), HE SPOKE TO MOSES AND ELIJAH. AREN’T WE TO FOLLOW HIS EXAMPLE?
First of all, this was a special and unique event. The lesson here is not that Jesus was giving them permission to pray to saints in Heaven. To the Jews, Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets. This event was simply to validate the ministry of Jesus in the eyes of the apostles. But as soon as Peter began to show an unhealthy interest in Moses and Elijah, they were taken away. There was no encouragement to “contact saints.” In fact there was nothing at all about prayer in this context.
Secondly, it is interesting to note that Catholics will use this argument in attempting to prove prayer to saints is ok, but (once again) I have never heard of any Catholic who actually prays to either Moses or Elijah.
By the way, when Peter asked to build tabernacles for Moses and Elijah, Jesus didn’t say, “Well, it’s ok, but only if you honor them with ‘dulia’.” No, there were no tabernacles intended for these great men of God, nor were prayers intended for them… the same goes for all saints.
CATHOLIC CLAIM – BUT WHAT ABOUT ALL THOSE PRAYERS TO THE SAINTS THAT HAVE ACTUALLY BEEN ANSWERED? SURELY, THERE IS A REASON FOR THIS. THESE PRAYERS ARE EFFECTIVE BECAUSE THE SAINTS IN HEAVEN ARE FAR MORE RIGHTEOUS THAN WE ARE.
Let’s assume that these prayers that were directed to saints have indeed been answered. Maybe (because of God’s grace) the prayer was answered in spite of your unbiblical prayer, rather than because of it. And of course, there is the possibility that it’s because others were praying directly to God for the same thing about the same time that you were praying to your saints.
Or perhaps, this “answered prayer” is just a deception of the enemy, specifically manifested to mislead people. If a teaching is false and unbiblical, yet seems to be "verified" by a miracle, then we must reject that miracle as evidence for that teaching. It is just like the sorcerers in Exodus 7:11, who produced a "miracle" similar to Aaron's rod turning into a serpent. Should we believe that these magicians were also from God just because they showed “signs and wonders?” They MUST have been from God, since they were able to duplicate Aaron’s miracle, right? No, not at all. Their “message” was not from God. The enemy can (to some extent, at least) duplicate (or counterfeit) miracles to deceive God's people. The Bible speaks of lying signs and wonders in the last days (2 Thessalonians 2:7-12), in order to deceive many. These “miracles” from the saints would fit in that very category.
We also see the unfortunate fate of the “prophet” in Deuteronomy 13:1-5, whose message does not line up with God’s commandments, even though he is exhibiting “signs and wonders.” Remember, you can’t depend on a “miracle” that confirms an UNBIBLICAL teaching.
How Does a Person Become Recognized as a “Saint”?
The Catholic Church teaches that a person today can only receive “sainthood” after his death. For the Church to recognize someone as a saint, his life must have been marked by “heroic virtue.” Furthermore, there must be (generally) at least two verified miracles attributed to him, “proving” that the saint has the power to intercede for those praying to him.
His life must be investigated by the Church and he must first go through the process of “beatification” and finally the process of “canonization.” Once he has been canonized, he is officially recognized by the Church as a “saint,” and the faithful are assured that he is in Heaven. Faithful Catholics can now pray to him publicly. By the way, many Catholics are not aware that all faithful Catholics are obligated to pray to “canonized” saints. The Church does not just encourage it, but commands public veneration for them. (See the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, under “Beatification and Canonization”)
Note this official statement concerning whom Catholics are allowed to pray to:
It is permitted to reverence through public veneration only those servants of God whom the authority of the Church has recorded in the list of the saints or the blessed. (Code of Canon Law, Canon 1187)
In other words, only those saints who are declared saints by the Church are the ones to whom Catholics can pray publicly. Catholics are forbidden to give public veneration / honor to anyone who is not beatified or canonized as a saint.
But this question begs to be asked: For the Catholic, are there limits to private prayer to those believed to be in Heaven? As for as I can tell, there are no official Catholic sources that limit the number of people to whom the Catholic can pray in private. They seem to be free to pray to Uncle Harry or to Aunt Susie, or anyone whom they feel has led a holy life.
But what if Uncle Harry is NOT in Heaven? The Catholic has no certainty of this, since Uncle Harry is not on the official “list of saints.” Suppose he is in Hell. Does the Catholic Church allow prayer to someone in Hell? At this point, it doesn’t matter if one’s prayer is public or private! Would not the individual be guilty of praying to an enemy of God? Can the person praying simply plead ignorance and still be innocent? Is the Church responsible for giving Catholics too much liberty in private prayer? It would appear so. But the Catholic Church seems to be more concerned about canonizing saints than it is about warning its members against idolatry.
Many Catholics are aware of, and admit to, certain abuses and “excessive devotion” to saints by some members of the Church (especially in “majority Catholic” countries), and the Church would agree that this is wrong. The pope has the authority and the responsibility to deal with these problems, but never seems to really address it. If excessive devotion really is a problem (and it is), then why does he allow such “devotion” to continue? Why does he not set an example and openly rebuke those who, even by Catholic standards, engage in idolatry? This lack of concern will only increase the level of sinful, idolatrous practices in the Catholic Church. It is our prayer that everyone would see the danger involved in praying to anyone but the Living God.
The Bible’s company of saints is not restricted to the group that the Catholic Church calls “saints.” The Bible calls all true believers saints (e.g., Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Ephesians 1:1)… not just some special group in Heaven.