Why do Catholics pray to saints? Why do Catholics worship Mary? These questions and others like it stem from confusion about a Catholic doctrine called the Communion of Saints. The Communion of Saints is the belief that every living Christian is connected to every other member of the church, whether alive or dead, through Jesus Christ.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church the communion of saints is “all the faithful of Christ, those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are being purified, and the blessed in heaven, all together forming one Church…in this communion, the merciful love of God and his saints is always [attentive] to our prayers” (CCC 962).
We have this connection because, as Jesus tells us, God “is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive” (Luke 20:38). Because all of those who have died in friendship with God are alive in Christ, and we are also alive in Christ, we are connected in a very real way. As a result, it is possible to pray for the dead in purgatory and to the dead in heaven.
Praying for the Dead
There is a tradition even before Christianity of offering prayers for the dead. We can see this in the second book of Maccabees, one of the books in the Catholic Old Testament. Judas Maccabeus was a Jewish military leader who led a revolt against the Seleucid kings who persecuted the Jews in the 2nd century BC. After a battle, Judas and his companions went to gather the bodies of their fallen comrades for burial. However, they found amulets to pagan idols under the tunics of the fallen dead. The Jewish law forbade this, and Judas and his companions realized that their comrades had died for this sin.
Then Judas prayed for the dead:
Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. … He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection in mind… it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin. (2 Maccabees 12:42-46)
Although this passage comes from a verse that Protestants do not consider Scriptural, it at the very least shows that among the Jews there was a tradition of praying for the dead even before Jesus came.
The Catholic Church teaches that you can offer prayers for the people in purgatory. Although purgatory is never named in Scripture, there is Biblical evidence for this belief. Every Christian has probably prayed for an earthly friend at some point. We can also pray for our friends (and strangers) who have died. The only thing left that they need is to enter heaven, so all we need to pray for them is that they be purified of their sins and quickly enter heaven.
What is a Saint?
The Church also teaches that just as you can turn to your friend and ask him or her to pray for you, you can also ask a saint in heaven to pray for you. Again, this is possible because those who have died are still alive in Christ.
Although we usually think of canonized saints when we think of saints, anyone in heaven is a saint. So a Catholic could pray to Mary, St. Francis of Assisi, or her own grandmother. Catholics are not required to pray to saints, but it can be very helpful to have heavenly intercessors! After all, we don’t hesitate to ask our friends on earth to pray for us.
Isn’t this Unbiblical?
It might sound like Catholics have a great system… except that the Bible forbids talking to the dead. In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, it says:
Let there not be found among you anyone who … consults ghosts and spirits, or seeks oracles from the dead. Anyone who does such things is an abomination to the LORD (18:10-12).
As we saw in 2 Maccabees, however, some pious Jews prayed for the dead even before the Catholic Church began. Praying for the dead is not a Catholic invention.
You might say, however, that praying for the dead and praying to the dead are two different things. Praying to the dead sounds a lot like consulting ghosts, even if praying for the dead does not.
The Catholic practice of praying to saints is based on the way in which saints are still alive in God, the God of the living. Catholics don’t think that the dead have special powers we might invoke, or that the dead have special knowledge we might seek. We merely know that those who have died are still our brothers and sisters. They still care for us. Because of their union with God, they probably even care more for us, and certainly with a purer soul, than they ever could on earth.
Furthermore, praying to the dead is simply asking for their intercession. Catholics are not consulting them or seeking oracles. It is clear that praying a rosary is very different from hiring a medium to channel the spirit of Jesus’ mother. No one would make a reality show called “Long Island Rosary.”
It is the same with praying to those we personally know who have died. Asking your departed father to be with you on your wedding day is different than trying to conjure up his presence. Even something like saying, “Dad, what do you think I should do?” is not at all the same thing as seeking a medium to tell you what your dad thinks. Common sense can tell the difference.
The Gift of the Communion of Saints
Thanks to the great gift Jesus has given us, our relationships don’t have to end when our loved ones die. We can even form friendships with the saints who have gone before us whom we never knew in this life. We can also do good for the dead through our prayers. Jesus always invites us to expand. Friendship with Jesus calls us out of ourselves and into relationship with so many others. And that includes the whole Church, those on earth, in purgatory, or in heaven.
3 thoughts on “The Communion of Saints”
The SOULS of the departed are not dead. And the Last Judgement [Mt 25:32–46] isn’t going to happen until the end of the world. Catholics are going to pray for your salvation anyway after you are departed, that every sin you might have committed will be forgiven. What if someone happens to sin w/o a chance to repent, at the very pt of death? A person who happens to die saying something he doesn’t mean, or with a slight doubt in his heart, possibly under torture, but who has otherwise been a perfectly faithful Christian, should be condemned to burn forever?
So we Catholics pray for the ‘dead’, e.g., Moreover as for me, God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in CEASING TO PRAY FOR YOU (1 Sa 12:23); Daniel prayed ‘O Lord, hear; O Lord forgive’ the sins of ALL ISRAEL (some of Israel was already departed; Dn 9); Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple named Tabitha,… And it came to pass in those days, that she was sick, and DIED:…But PETER put [the widows] all forth, and kneeled down, and PRAYED… (Ac 9:36–40); Brethren, my heart’s desire and PRAYER to God FOR ISRAEL is, THAT THEY MIGHT BE SAVED (Rm 10:1; cf. Dn 9); And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: PRAYING always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication FOR ALL SAINTS; (Ep 6:17,18); PRAY ONE FOR ANOTHER, that ye may be healed (iathete—‘generally of the physical, SOMETIMES SPIRITUAL, disease’ —Strong’s; James 5:16); If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ASK, and he shall GIVE HIM LIFE for them that sin not unto death. (…it doesn’t say, ‘Stop after he dies’; 1 Jn 5:16). And of course 2Mc 12:38–46.
But even the Samaritans, who became separated from the Jews b/f 2Mc, & who accept only the Pentateuch, pray for the departed! Just a couple passages: ‘May God grant mercy unto him, And appoint unto him a place in the Garden of Eden!’ & ‘that Thy mercy and Thy grace may shelter the spirit of Thy poor servant N. son of N., of the family of N. O Lord God, in Thy mercy upon him and cause his spirit to dwell in the Garden of Eden, and forgive Thou him’. Really, everybody in the world, incl. God’s people, has always prayed for the departed, up until Protestants came along & supposedly knew better, even our Scripture better than those who wrote it.
The 39-Book Canon of the Masoretical Text is from A.D. times, from Jews who had already rejected Christ to side w/ the Pharisees. And ‘masorah’ means ‘tradition’. How consistent can it be to accept Christ & the NT, but to reject all other tradition handed down from the Apostles (where did Protestants get their NTs?), & to otherwise choose tradition handed down from the Pharisees? If we put 1 of the Protestants’ favorite vv. in context: ‘And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness…’ (2Tm 3:15,16) & we note that Timothy lived in Asia Minor (greater Greece) in pre-NT times & even wasn’t already circumcised (Ac 16:1–3), the logical conclusion is that the Scriptures he knew were Greek, i.e. the LXX, ∴ incl. 2Mc, ∴ 2Mc is inspired. And 2Tm 3:16 excludes the NT! Anyway, where in the Bible is it that everything must be in the Bible? Where in the Bible, for example, are pews & praying w/ your eyes closed?
And ‘every’ in Mt 18:16 is about every matter of a sin against a disciple, by his brother in Christ (v. 15). If we Catholics have sinned against you by our apostolic practices, you’ll have to bring witnesses to est. that they’re sins—who could est. it? What authority could Protestants have over Catholics? Biblically, the Bible is not an authority: the scribes had the Scriptures, but Christ taught as one w/ authority (Mt 7:29). It was passed on directly (Jn 20:22,23 & Ac 8:18,19). And Catholics will ‘neglect to hear’, so you’ll tell it unto ‘the church’—which? Couldn’t be ‘the Protestant church’—no one can agree who all the members are. The only church w/ an objective membership is the Catholic Church, ∴ the holiness of prayers for the departed would be proven.
P.S. This was supposed to be a response to the comment by Gary Westgerdes. Sorry, not sure why it didn’t end up following. Maybe it can be moved.
The scripture used to support the idea of praying for the dead and the existence of purgatory shows the Catholic weaknesses in their faith because the scriptures clearly say that everything should be proven from two or three witnesses. The Catholic Church has twisted one verse and made it an indispensable part of their Religion. It may look like it is standing now but it is trying to shore itself up through the ecumenical movement which when it reaches it’s destiny at the end of the broad road, instead of the narrow way, will cease to exist or as the bible puts it “destruction”.