When Ines Gautreau was a distressed 10-year-old bound to a wheelchair, she was inspired to turn to St. Anthony of Padua. It was the saint’s simplicity, she recalls today, that caught her eye.
As the years passed, her devotion to St. Anthony grew and strengthened. Even as a retiree living in Las Vegas, she made yearly pilgrimages to Mission San Antonio de Padua in California. Surely, she says, the saint got her through many trying times.
Just as favorite saints have done for countless Catholics down through the ages.
“The Catholic tradition holds strongly to the communion of saints,” reminds Carmelite Father John Russell, professor of homiletics at Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University. “Many times we go to the saints as part of that sense of solidarity that we have with them.”
As they entered heaven, the saints were “‘put in charge of many things,’” the Catechism makes clear in No. 2683. “Their intercession is their most exalted service to God’s plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world.” And No. 956 states that their intercession for us through Christ to the Father does not cease.
The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments tells us, in its 2001 Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, that some are patrons of professions, of particular circumstances such as childbirth (St. Anne) or death (St. Joseph), or of specific graces. In other words, some saints have one or more specialties — like St. Anthony, who is best known for help with finding lost objects, but also intercedes for many other special intentions.
Protestant friends often ask: “Why can’t you just go straight to Jesus?” Father Russell points out that, of course, we can. But as we become familiar with particular saints and they become grounded in our own history, we delight in invoking their name. It’s not much different from the “bonding” that forms between friends who share a lifelong friendship.
A handful of saints attract the devotion and intercession of flocks of people worldwide. One is St. Thérèse of Lisieux. People seek her intercession often because she seems to put holiness within reach of ordinary people, says Father Russell, who is also a popular retreat master, speaker and writer on St. Thérèse’s life and mission.
“She’s extremely down-to-earth, her way is simple, and basically it has to do with a fundamental unity between love of God and love of neighbor,” he explains. “Her spirituality is Christo-centric.”
He adds that, near the end of her short life, she said she wanted to “spend my heaven doing good on earth.” That she does as people go to her for all kinds of things, notably illness, one of her specialties.
Intercessory prayers often take a personal, even conversational, form. Carmelite Father Bob Colaresi, director of the Society of the Little Flower (littleflower.org ) in Darien, Ill., says that’s a reflection of the kinds of things for which people feel they need special help.
“Mostly they’re struggling with things in the family that immediately impact their life,” he says, adding that intercessions are often asked for family members. Many people are “looking for some peace in their lives,” adds the priest, “and they hope someone bigger in the communion of saints will help them.”
Pallottine Father Louis Micca, pastoral director of the nationwide St. Jude Shrine in Baltimore (stjudeshrine.org), sees a wide spectrum of people from every ethnic background attending Masses and seeking St. Jude’s help for all sorts of serious situations, from terminal illnesses to home foreclosures. That’s because St. Jude is known as the patron saint of desperate situations and lost causes.
Meanwhile, the Church teaches that it’s beneficial to pray with the saints in good times and bad. Parents like Bill and Juli Currie in the Minneapolis suburb of Chanhassen, Minn., planned ahead to teach their children devotion to the saints: The saint on whose feast each was born helped determine their first or middle name.
“We were very thoughtful when we chose names for our six children, to encourage them to have devotion to that particular saint,” says Juli. “If they can’t sleep or are struggling with an issue, we encourage them to ask that saint to help them.”
When golfing together one recent day, Bill enlightened oldest son John Paul Francis, 13, who’s athletic and competitive, not to get frustrated. He encouraged the boy to pray for help to John Paul II, who was also athletic. “Bill did notice a difference the rest of the afternoon,” says Juli.
Father Micca has seen how, through sincere devotion, jobs were found “when it was so obvious that wouldn’t happen for a while,” and many physical healings occurred, like the teenage boy from Mexico brought in a wheelchair by his very faithful parents. “He left walking,” says Father Micca. “It was far beyond when I saw him initially.”
We must remember that prayers are not always answered right away and, when they are answered, sometimes it’s in a way we weren’t looking for. So reminds Father Russell.
“An American gets discouraged right away,” he says. “This intercessory prayer is in the saint’s hands and God’s hands. We do not control or determine the time frame. And in God’s providence, the answer you wanted did not appear. It can appear there is a No.”
“People often ask for one thing and they get something else,” says Father Colaresi. “They get a sense of peace in what happened or surrender to the will of God. And they gain the wisdom of the spirit, the insight that God really is in charge.”
As for devotions, popular novenas have grown around several saints. In some cases they’re joined to Masses. Father Russell says that, as for norms, basically it’s as simple as melding your own heart to the heart of “your” saint. “The prayer basically should arise from your own devotion,” he says. “If it does, it tends to be more authentic and genuine.”
At the same time, he cautions against invoking saints for trivial things or with a superstitious mindset — as, for example, burying a statue of St. Joseph in the yard to help sell a home.
The Curries look for ways to explain these distinctions to their children. Eight-year-old Maria Monica knows the difference and has a strong devotion to St. Thérèse. When she won a candy bar, Maria’s first reaction, says mom Juli, was to show her happiness over finding it had six pieces — one for her and one for each brother.
And imagine her delight when she won a random prize in Bible school and it turned out to be a locket with a picture of St. Thérèse. Coincidence? Maria Monica doesn’t think so. And neither does her mom.
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.