Speaking With the Saints
“Look at that,” Thomas said, “Soon, you'll worship him as a god.”
He waved a local newspaper. The front page headline asked in bold letters, “John Paul II on the fast-track to sainthood?”
Thomas is an evangelical Christian with a deep love for Christ. He enjoys challenging me about Catholic beliefs he finds misguided. Our stand on saints is particularly disagreeable to him; he considers it a vestige of paganism: “All those saints you worship, each of them in charge of a particular matter, such as good weather, protection from fires, a good harvest, etc., etc. — aren't they precisely like the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece or Rome?”
“We do not worship saints,” I said, “We venerate them. Worship is due only to God.” “That's just a matter of semantics,” he gave back, “a distinction without a difference.”
“No, it is not,” I protested, “let me explain: Worship is a response to a being who has his greatness of himself. The only such being is God. In contrast, veneration includes an awareness that the person venerated has no glory in and of himself, but that everything admirable in him ultimately comes from God. When we say that we do not worship saints but venerate them, we want to emphasize that their beauty reflects God's splendor.
If God is the sun, radiating light by itself, the saints are like the moon, being bright only through reflecting the sun's radiance. Isn't it clear, then, that distinguishing veneration from adoration is not mere semantics?”
“Maybe,” he conceded, “but this does not sway me to consider worshipping — excuse me, venerating — saints as right.”
Thomas is a first-rate classical musician. So I said, “Think of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn. Don't you admire them?” “I do,” he agreed, “But what does Bach have to do with our topic?”
“Well, think of veneration as a kind of religious admiration,” I explained, “If it is appropriate to admire people for matters like musical talent, capability in science, and even accomplishments in sports, shouldn't it also be proper to admire them for something much more important, their zeal in following Christ and their courage in professing the faith?”
“Perhaps — but the way you Catholics relate to saints distracts from God's glory.”
“Does it?” I asked, “Imagine Rembrandt taking a friend through his studio. Instead of looking at any of the paintings, the friend keeps his gaze fixed on Rembrandt until the latter asks impatiently, ‘Don't you want to look at any of my works?’ The friend defends himself, ‘I am afraid that looking at your paintings will diminish my appreciation of your greatness as a painter.’ This would be silly, would it not? Through admiring Rembrandt's paintings, the friend gives honor to Rembrandt. Similarly, the saints are God's most wonderful creations; by admiring (aka venerating) them, we give glory to God who made them.”
He continued looking skeptical as he stated, “There is another matter I take exception to. You pray to saints for assistance — just as if they would be little gods and goddesses capable of helping you.”
I responded, “The saints cannot do anything for us except pray for us. Whatever benefit might result from a prayer to a saint is God's work, done because of the saint's intercession.”
He inquired, “Why waste your energy with asking a saint? Why not go directly to the top?”
It was time for me to leave, so I suggested that we continue our conversation at a future occasion. I knew that Thomas had elective surgery scheduled for the following week. I tried to reassure him by pointing out the excellent reputation of the medical facility where the procedure was to be done. “Thank you for reminding me,” he said, “but please pray for me.”
I could not resist the temptation of using the opening he had just given me: “Thomas, why did you just waste your energy asking me to pray for you? Why did you not make better use of the moment by going directly to the top?”
He laughed: “You are impossible, Fritz.” He got my point: We are called to pray for each other, and when someone promises to pray for me, I am deeply grateful for that promise. The intercessory prayers of a fellow human on this earth are precious to me although he is forgetful, easily distracted, and often inattentive.
Should I then not rejoice much more in the thought of a saint praying for me — someone who never grows tired, is never forgetful, and eternally able to intercede before God with intensive fervor because he sees him face to face?
To date, I did not convince Thomas of the appropriateness of venerating saints. He thinks very highly of John Paul II, though.
May the prayers of that great man help the Thomases of this world to see the Catholic Church as their true home; may John Paul II's intercessions before God's throne bring about a realization of the profound hope he shared with our savior: Ut unum sint (that they may be one).
Fritz Wenisch teaches philosophy and religious studies at the University of Rhode Island.
- October 9-15, 2005