Praying with the Saints: It Works
The saints form an integral part of Catholic life. This was highlighted by the recent Saints of Italy pilgrimage. GUNTHER SIMMERMACHER reflects on our relationship with the saints.
The weather forecast for Venice was dismal: dark skies, rain. And, as our local tour director assured me, if it rains in the morning in this region, it will rain all day. “Pack your umbrellas”, we were told.
We had enjoyed a week of glorious weather on our Southern Cross/Radio Veritas Saints of Italy pilgrimage in September. But now, in beautiful Venice, it was raining.
By the time we emerged from our morning Mass in St Mark’s basilica, the vast piazza in front of it was flooded. We had to enter the basilica for our tour by navigating hastily erected planks.
But when we came out again, the sun had emerged. And we ended up with a day of glorious sunshine.
I give the credit for that to St Scholastica. In the morning I had asked the patron saint for rain for her intercession to stop the rain, and invoked her twice on the bus. Clearly St Scholastica came through for us.
The scientists may refer to meteorological phenomena that conspired to deceive the weather forecast and conventional wisdom. Whatever those might be, they doubtless were God’s tool.
Even the most cynical Catholic will have at least one story of prayer for a saint’s intercession producing unexpected results. My personal favourite story involves St Anthony of Padua.
Some years ago I had lost my ID book. Evidently being a careless individual where the prudent management of important documents is concerned, a few years after that I couldn’t find my passport days before I was due to leave on an overseas journey.
We had turned the house upside down to find the passport, to no avail. Then my wife prayed for St Anthony’s assistance. The very next place she looked was in an old briefcase: and, lo, there were the passport and the long-lost ID book.
I have no rational explanation how these items happened to be in that briefcase. Had I put the passport there, I would then have found my lost ID book. I don’t know by what circumstances these two items came together, but I do know that within seconds of asking St Anthony, my wife found them.
When the saints help us, there is a temptation to give all credit to them. Of course, they only intercede for us before God, therefore it is to him that the glory must be given.
So it is not really correct for us to say we’re praying “to” a saint – though that terminology is common usage’as if the saint is an officer of God performing heroic deeds. Rather, we might say that we pray with the saints, as we might ask our priests or family or friends or community to pray with us in times of need.
Still, it is good to have saints at hand to help us find lost travel documents or to change the weather, or to pray with us when we have other petitions. It’s one of the great benefits of being Catholic that we have recourse to the saints as intercessors.
Sometimes they act as a useful buffer which enables us to pray better. I’d have felt quite foolish going straight to God to pray for the rain in Venice to stop. It’s trivial, and quite possibly selfish, if there were farmers in the Veneto region who actually needed buckets of rain that particular day. It was easier to go to St Scholastica first (she probably also knew all about the agricultural needs of the local farmers from their petitions).
Going through the saints might be likened to asking your mom or older sibling to put in a word for us with dad. Sometimes even in our prayer we want a go-between. Other times we may feel quite comfortable to go straight to our Heavenly Father. Either way, God hears our prayers-sometimes he just says no.
Some Protestants criticise the Catholic devotion to the saints as a medieval superstition, or, worse as a heresy, assuming that we see the saints, including Our Lady, as mediators. They are wrong, of course. There is only one mediator: Christ.
The practice of asking the saints to pray for us is, in fact, as old as the Church itself. And there is proof for that.
When the house of St Peter in Capernaum at the Sea of Galilee was excavated, archaeologists found inscriptions from early pilgrims in different languages, asking Peter to pray for them. One of these languages was Hebrew, the theological language of Jews in apostolic times. The obvious conclusion is that this graffito dates to the very early times of the Church, when it was still a sect within Judaism.
Ancient graffiti found in the Roman catacombs further show that praying with the saints was a normal practice in the ancient Church.
The Saints of Italy pilgrimage placed a particular emphasis on the portfolios of patronages held by the various saints we visited. If our prayer petitions concerned an instance of marital problems, for example, the Umbrian town of Cascia was a good place to present them to God through St Rita, patron of troubled marriages.
In Cascia I had an uncanny experience which might indicate that some saints don’t have a good sense of humour’or perhaps too much of it.
As we explored the monastery of St Rita we saw the holes made in a wall between the saint’s cell and her old tomb by what tradition holds are miracle bees which moved in there some 200 years after St Rita’s death.
I joked that the holes looked more like my misadventures with a powerdrill. Instantly, a bee appeared and circled above my head, as if to admonish me for my flippancy. You might say that nature just favoured my sweet head; I suspect St Rita sent this solitary bee to send me a stern, or playful, message, perhaps knowing my phobia of bees.
We do build relationships with saints, albeit in different ways. One might relate differently to the fifth-century saint Scholastica as one might to the 20th-century saint John XXIII. The former’s life is distant and abstract, the latter’s life is recent, concrete and well-documented. We can identify with St John XXIII because he lived in a world we recognise.
So where St Scholastica is a welcome intercessor on weather-related matters whose sanctity we take for granted without knowing much about it, St John XXIII inspires us by visible example.
The observable holiness of the saints is what motivated John Paul II, now himself one of them, to accelerate the process of canonisation. In his 26-year pontificate he created a record 110 saints.
The example of holiness inspired the Saints of Italy pilgrims: going to the places of saints, seeing their tombs or birthplaces or the arena of activity or their relics showed that these men and women were real people living in the real world, not just names on churches and pictures on prayer cards.
St Francis was real; St Scholastica was real; St Rita of Cascia was real; St John XXIII was real. All faced challenges in life, as do we. They contended with temptation and battled with sin. In the end, they won and are confirmed residents in the presence of God, in what we call heaven.
Canonisation is just that, though: an official confirmation that a person is in heaven. But just because your granny hasn’t been canonised doesn’t mean that she cannot be a saint in the presence of God in heaven. It means that the Church has not confirmed this to be so.
That implies two things: firstly, it would be inappropriate for you to involve the whole Church community in maintaining a devotion to Granny, unless your bishop thinks her witness of faith was so extraordinary as to justify a popular devotion.
But it also means that you are free to invoke Granny’s intercession with God on your behalf.
On the feast of All Saints we are called to remember all the saints in heaven, known and unknown.
In that spirit: Granny and all the saints, pray for us.