Why do Catholics ‘worship’ saints?

Posted on February 19, 2012

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This weekend, I wrote a story for Rappler about the upcoming canonization of the 2nd Filipino saint, Visayan teenager Pedro Calungsod. Inevitably, a question is raised alongside stories like this: Why do Catholics “worship” saints in the first place?

This concern is valid given the misplaced devotion of a number of Catholics, who think saints have their own miraculous powers and choose to approach them in place of the seemingly unapproachable God.

To clarify the Catholic devotion to saints, 3 points therefore ought to be made:

1. The Catholic Church itself forbids the worship of saints. “(God) said, ‘I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Do not have other Gods before me” (Ex 20: 2-3). To worship saints, then, is to commit the sin of idolatry.

Saints should only serve as models and intercessors, says the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

2. Saints are part of God’s family. We are not the only members of the Body of Christ, the Church. In fact, those in heaven are closer to Christ than we can ever be on earth. They are the graduates of the school of life, the elders of our Christian community.

Referring to “heroes of faith” like Abraham and Noah in Hebrews 11, Paul says, “What a cloud of innumerable witnesses surround us! So let us be rid of every encumbrance, and especially of sin, to persevere in running the race marked out before us” (Hebrews 12: 1).

For Kimberly Hahn, a Protestant who later converted to Catholicism, this means that those in heaven remain in communion with those on earth. This point became clearer for her when Hahn, then struggling with Catholic beliefs, suffered miscarriages and was advised by her husband, then a recent Catholic convert, to read Hebrews 11 and 12.

“(Hebrews) 12 seemed to say that we (are) surrounded in our own race down here by all the brothers and sisters who had gone before us… It was as if we were in an Olympic stadium and the people in the stands were former medalists in the race in which I was now competing – they knew what it took to win, and they were surrounding me and cheering me on,” Hahn writes in Rome Sweet Home, a book she co-authored with her husband Scott, a former Protestant scholar.

3. Nothing’s wrong with asking saints to pray for us to God. In the first place, is there anything wrong with asking friends or even strangers to pray for us?

In the Bible, as in the book of Elijah, we see holy men and women praying in behalf of their community. “There will be healing if you confess your sins to one another and pray for each other. The prayer of the upright man has great power, provided he perseveres,” says the Letter of James (5: 16).

“If the prayers of the righteous man are very powerful, as James 5: 16 says, how much more those who are perfected?” Hahn points out.

When she asks saints to pray for her, Hahn says she is “not approaching them instead of Jesus but rather going with them to Jesus, just as I did on earth.” “This prayer for intercession (does) not detract from the glory of God; it (demonstrates) his glory, because we (are) living faithfully as brothers and sisters in him.”

We Catholics pray to saints for help – we do not worship them – because they have successfully “finished the race” (2 Timothy 4: 7) and can help us finish ours as well.

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Posted in: Church