Communion of Saints

Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, on Communion with the saints

Several years ago I engaged in a public dialogue with a Roman Catholic theologian about prayers to the saints. I went into the discussion with my mind made up on the subject. We Protestants—especially we evangelicals—do not pray to anyone but God. Directing our prayers in any other direction is at best theologically confused and at worst idolatrous. Case closed.

I came away, though, a little less convinced that the theological case was as tightly shut as I had thought. My Catholic dialogue partner made some points that had never occurred to me. Properly understood, he argued, praying to a saint in heaven is nothing more than a conversation with another Christian, in which the person on earth is asking the saint to intercede with God on his or her behalf. Surely, the theologian remarked, Protestants should have no fundamental objection to that kind of thing. When we Protestants are facing some special sort of crisis, are we not inclined to ask our friends to pray to God on our behalf? Well then, he asked, what is wrong with also asking friends who are already in heaven to take up our cause before the divine throne? After all, given their location, they are likely to be in a better position to get through to God than even some of our most pious friends here on earth.

He went on to make his case in more technical theological terms. This particular disagreement, he observed, is a case in point of a more general pattern of misunderstanding between Protestants and Catholics. In simple terms, where Catholics think ecclesiology, Protestants tend to think soteriology. So we often talk past each other, with Protestants thinking about getting saved and Catholics thinking about experiencing the life of the church. On the practice of praying to the saints, the Protestant impulse is to start talking about how Jesus alone is the one Mediator between ourselves and God, whereas Catholics view the practice as a case of communio sanctorum, the fellowship of the saints.

Without completing understanding the meaning of “soteriology” (I’m not a fan of big words, which tend to hide the meaning of what you’re trying to say), this seems like a good description of the divide between Catholic and Protestants on the issue of prayer to the saints. To Catholics, asking saints to intercede for us with God is no different than asking the person in the pew next to us to do the same. Muow states later “I still worry that focusing on the saints in heaven can draw attention away from the God who alone is worthy of worship” and there’s definitely a danger of this, and you will see it among Catholics. But a similar danger can arise from many points of Christian doctrine. For example, even worshipping God can be taken to an extreme if it interferes with our responsibilities to our fellow men here on earth.

Here’s another example (anecdotal, I acknowledge) Rouw presents that shook his previously held beliefs:

After the debate, however, a priest came up to me to tell me a lively story that weakened my resistance a little more. One of his parishioners came to him a while back, he said, concerned about how to make it through Thanksgiving Day with his wife’s family. “We go there every year,” he told the priest, “and every year I end up fighting with my mother-in-law. We simply do not get along!” The man had pleaded with his wife to let him stay home this time around, but she wouldn’t hear of it. So in desperation he was coming to the priest for help. What could he possibly do to make it through the day without getting into the annual battle?

The priest told him to pick a saint who might have some special understanding of this sort of case, and to pray daily to that saint for help. The man agreed to do that. A few days after Thanksgiving the man returned. “Great advice!” he told the priest. “I picked St. Francis,” he reported, “and I said to him, ‘Francis, you hung around with some pretty undesirable people, so I think you can understand my problem. Please help me with my mother-in-law.'” After a few prayers to the saint, the man reported, he got this response: “I once hugged a leper,” Francis told him, “and if I could do that, you surely can hug your mother-in-law.” When Thanksgiving Day came, the first thing the man did was to give his mother-in-law a warm hug. “She was so surprised she started to cry,” he told the priest. “And we had a great day. St. Francis helped me to have a wonderful Thanksgiving!”

Again, I was almost persuaded. As I thought about the priest’s story, I realized that rather than worrying that the man who prayed to St. Francis had flirted with idolatry, I ought to be grateful that he was reaching past American Idol for examples about how to treat people.

Rouw hasn’t completely come around to believing in praying to saints, but he’s more open to it than before. Without opening up too much, I can say that the saints have helped me with struggled I’ve faced. I definitely vouch for the power of their intercession.

Hat Tip: Amy Welborn