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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 differently.
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, n. 956.
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.
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 our behalf?
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 miraculous effect.
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 something.
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.