November 2, 2012

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Year of Faith: Catholics’ devotion to saints

John F. FinkThis week, on Nov. 1, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of All Saints. To indicate the importance it gives to devotion to saints, it made the feast a holy day of obligation.

Other religions do not honor saints the way that the Catholic Church does. However, the practice of honoring people who lived heroically holy lives began at the beginning of Christianity when Christians began to venerate St. Stephen as the first martyr.

For centuries, local churches remembered holy people after their deaths, calling them saints and praying to them to ask for their intercession with God. Finally, the popes reserved for themselves the right to declare someone a saint.

The Catholic Church canonizes people not only to honor them—they couldn’t care less, being in heaven—but, more important, to offer them as role models. Those of us who are still trying to work out our salvation can try to emulate some of the virtues displayed by those who were so close to God that they were recognized for their holiness.

This week’s feast acknowledges that there are many more saints than just those the Church has officially canonized. To be a saint means simply that that person is in heaven. Naturally, we hope that we, too, will be saints after we die, although there is not much chance that the Church will officially declare us so.

Some people object to our praying to saints for their intercession. But that practice comes from our belief in the communion of saints that Christians profess to believe when they recite the Apostles Creed.

Catholics believe that the saints in heaven—and that includes anyone in heaven, not just those who have been canonized—can pray for us, just as those on Earth can do.

The Church encourages the invocation of the saints in much the same way that one might ask a skilled neighbor for help with a problem. However, the difference is that the skilled neighbor could perform the task for us, and we don’t believe that the saints do that. Rather, they can join their prayers to ours and on our behalf.

The saints themselves believed strongly that they would be powerful intercessors in heaven. St. Dominic told his brothers as he was dying, “Do not weep, for I shall be more useful to you after my death and I shall help you then more effectively than during my life.”

And St. Thérèse of Lisieux said, “I want to spend my heaven doing good on Earth.”

C. S. Lewis, although an Anglican, understood the doctrine of the Communion of Saints. In his book Letters to Malcolm (Chiefly About Prayer), he asked, “If you can ask for the prayers of the living, why should you not ask for the prayers of the dead?”

He practiced praying with the saints, rather than to them, including with those he referred to as “our own dear dead,” and hoped that their voices might be more effective than his own by itself might be.

The Church of England honors Lewis as a saint. †

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