Advice from Master Catechists
Do we pray to the saints?
Q: I am a first-year catechist and am finding
out a whole lot about the Catholic faith. For example, we don’t pray to saints?
Is that right? Don’t we say “Pray for us sinners” in the Hail Mary?
—First-year catechist, Arlington, TX
Dan Thomas’s Answer
A: First, let me
say what a great thing it is that you are learning “a whole lot about the
Catholic faith.” One of the wonderful truths about being a catechist is how
much we learn in the teaching/learning process. Never is that process just
one-sided. That is one of the meanings of the saying we catechists use: “I get
so much more from my students than I give to them.” This truly is one of the
great glories of being a catechist.
Second, what do we mean when we say that we “pray to the
saints,” a phrase we Catholics often use? To understand this, we need to look back
to medieval times when feudal lords reigned. To get a hearing from that lord, a
person—especially a person without status—needed a “patron” to speak for him or
her. This cultural situation was naturally taken into the realm of prayer since
this was how people understood the way life worked.
Thus the phrase “patron saint” came into use. Today, we
don’t have that cultural situation, so we look at praying to the saints
Another image useful in understanding this type of prayer is
the practice in the early Church of praying to the martyrs. Members of the Christian
community often personally knew people who were heroic witnesses to their
faith. Members were certain that these faithful people were in heaven, and so
they could ask them to speak directly to God for the community and/or its
individual members. I find myself asking my mother, who died several years ago,
to intercede for me just because it seems so natural to talk to her about joys,
difficulties, and needs.
God certainly hears all of our prayers—always. No one is
unworthy of being in God’s presence and speaking to God directly and
intimately. What’s more, the Church believes in and preaches strongly that we
all belong to the Communion of Saints. To put it another way, we are not in
this alone. The saints are with us. God is with us. God loves us and cares for
us and is there for us in all we need.
For more information about the intercession of the saints,
see the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
Dan Thomas served in catechetical leadership for over
30 years and remains involved in the National Conference for Catechetical
Leadership (NCCL). He and his wife, Eileen, are the parents of two adult sons.
Kate Ristow’s Answer
A: Of course we
pray to the saints! The Catechism of the
Church tells us that they “contemplate God, praise him and constantly care
for those they have left on earth...Their intercession is their most exalted
service to God’s plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and the
whole world” (n. 2683).
Intercession is the key concept here. We do not pray to the
saints, even Mary, our greatest saint, in the same way we pray to the Father,
Jesus, or the Holy Spirit. Keep in mind the First Commandment: “I am the Lord,
your God. You shall not have other gods besides me.” We honor the saints,
including Mary, but we express our adoration only for and to God.
Mary is a saint; she is not God. However, she occupies a
singular and exalted role in God’s plan. After all, she is the Mother of God
and our mother, too. When we pray to Mary, we can be assured that she hears our
prayers and brings them to God, interceding for us with our Lord.
The same is true of all the saints. We pray to them and ask
them to intercede for us. We firmly believe the saints are in heaven. They bask
in the beatific vision. How can we fail to believe that they will intercede on
One of the requirements of canonization is proof of two
miracles (one for beatification and another for sainthood). These miracles are
a sign that the individual indeed is in heaven and capable of prayerful
intercession for others.
Regarding the Hail Mary, the phrase “Pray for us sinners”
reminds us of how very much Mary cares for us. Mary, our mother in heaven, is
always praying that we follow the teachings and example of her Son. She, who in
her Immaculate Conception was sinless from the first moment of life, helps us
to avoid sin through her intercessory prayer.
Encourage your fourth graders to pray to the saints. They
have gone before us in faith and want to help us share in the glory of heaven.
One of my friends has an abiding devotion to St. Anthony
(the patron saint of lost items), perhaps because she is a bit forgetful. At
any rate, it is not unusual for her to call on Anthony after a fruitless search
for keys or glasses or what-have-you. Quite devoutly, Mickey intones aloud:
“Saint Anthony, dear Anthony look around.
My (keys) are lost and can’t be found.”
As hard as it is for me to picture St. Anthony immediately
springing into action (and prayer), Mickey usually does find her lost item…and
in short order. Who are we to argue with that?
Never underestimate the power of a saint’s prayer!
Kate Ristow, Contributing Editor to CATECHIST, has
worked in Catholic publishing for over 25 years as a national speaker and
writer, building on a wealth of experience in the religious formation of
children and catechists in both parish and Catholic school programs.
What is the value of relics?
Q: What is a good response to a group of
fifth-graders who express disgust (and you can imagine the many ways
fifth-graders express disgust) about relics such as bones of saints? I have to admit
that I rather understand their response, so maybe you could help both me and my
fifth-graders understand the value of such relics.
—Richard, Cleveland, OH
Chris Weber’s Answer
A: Hey, let’s
face it! The practice of saving pieces of another person’s body is disgusting, at least to our Western
sensibilities. Start by affirming that sentiment! From there, consider
explaining the idea of relics in this fashion:
In the Gospel of Matthew, a woman who has been ill for 12
years walks up behind Jesus thinking, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be
made well” (Matthew 9:21). She touches his cloak and is instantly made well!
This story dramatically illustrates why we save relics of
the saints. Amazing things happen when we are close to holy people.
During their earthly lives, saints influence people deeply
through their prayers and works of charity. Often miracles are attributed to
being in the presence of a saint. Many Christians believe that powerful
personal holiness permeates one’s entire being, including one’s body and
possessions. This belief holds true even after a holy person has died; being
close to a saint’s body, or even articles that a saint touched, can have a
Have you ever had a chance to shake the hand of a famous
person, say, a sports star or celebrity whom you admire? I have heard people
who have shaken the hand of their favorite sports star say, “I am never going
to wash that hand again!”
Have you ever received a gift or souvenir that you love so
much that you keep it close to you, even by your bed at night? These types of
occurrences remind us of how physical we are, how connected we are to what we
see, hear, touch, smell, and feel. We attach deep meaning to things around us;
we are very concrete. It is no wonder that so many of us revere relics.
At the same time, let’s go back to the reading from Matthew
9:22. Jesus turns around and says to the woman, “Take heart, daughter; your
faith has made you well.” Did the woman get well because she touched Jesus’
cloak or because she believed in him? Jesus reminds the woman—and us—that we
believe not in magic or special objects, but in him!
Chris Weber has worked
in the field of catechesis for over 20 years as a catechist, a parish
catechetical leader, and a diocesan staff member. He is currently Director of
the Mount Summer Program at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, MD.
Janet Schaeffler’s Answer
A: I’d like to answer your question in two parts.
First I want to respond to
something you didn’t ask but surfaced for me as I read your question. I’m sure
many people can resonate with your learners “expressing disgust.” Perhaps,
then, our call as catechists is first to use this opportunity as a time to talk
about our responses to things we don’t immediately understand.
For example, why is our first
response/reaction often one of disgust, loathing, or aversion when something is
foreign to us—before we know the history, the culture, or the customs of the
time? This applies to many circumstances and various situations. Why do we
think that what we’re familiar with is a universal norm and that anything
different must be incorrect, inferior, and/or worthy of ridicule?
As for valuing relics: Often
close-to-home comparisons help young people (and old people) better understand
Ask your learners if they have a
baby book in which their parents saved a lock of their hair, perhaps from their
first hair cut. Some parents have the first pair of their baby’s shoes bronzed
so that they can keep them forever. Such items bring a mom and dad close to
their child when he/she grows up and moves away. So, too, with relics. They help
people feel a certain intimacy with the saints.
Christians treasure relics in
the way families might treasure a quilt that has been handed down through the
generations, stitched by Great-Great Grandma, or a letter written home from the
war by Great-Grandpa. In our nation’s history, we cherish and keep important
documents and symbols in museums—carefully preserved and respected, and
available for all to see.
Long before the start of
Christianity, relics of heroes were revered by some ancient civilizations:
Greeks, Persians, and Buddhists.
What began the Christian
reverence for relics? In the beginning years of Christianity, Eucharist was
celebrated in the catacombs (underground burial grounds) on the first martyrs’
tombs. Flowing from that practice, relics are now in the altars of our
churches. They are a bridge for us with our ancestors in the faith.
The Council of Trent (citing 1
Corinthians 6:10, that the saints’ bodies are “living members of Christ and the
temple of the Holy Ghost”) affirmed that relics are an important reminder that
the saints’ bodies will be raised by God to eternal life. It’s easy for us, at
times, to make the saints different from ourselves, forgetting that they were
human beings just like us, with the same human bodies as ourselves.
Throughout history, the Church
has cautioned against abuses and misuse of relics, especially superstition. The
Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued the
“Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy”
(2001) which includes directives on the veneration of relics (n. 237).
After many years in parish and diocesan catechetical
ministry, Janet Schaeffler, OP, is currently involved in catechetical/adult
faith formation consultation, writing, workshops, days of reflection/retreats,
and teaching. Her website is janetschaeffler.com.