Can Evangelicals Pray to Saints?

Swedish Lutherans Observe the Festival of Saint Lucy during Advent
While Lutherans rarely pray to Saints anymore, this celebration is reminiscent of days long ago when they did. Photo Credit: Claudia Gr√ľnder, Wikipedia Commons

The title of this article may seem like a strange one but it's a perfectly legitimate question. Can Evangelicals pray to Saints? Or maybe the question should be: can Evangelicals pray to people in heaven? Well, from a Catholic perspective, of course, they can. There is nothing stopping them. However, from an Evangelical perspective, this may seem strange.

Recently I was driving my father to a doctor's appointment for his eyes. He had just recieved cateract surgery for his failing vision. He asked me why Catholics pray to Saints. He's Evangelical and I'm Catholic. At first, like many Evangelicals, not only did the idea seem foreign to him, but it was probably a little repugnant too. I assumed this to be the case since that was my opinion back when I was an Evangelical. His assumptions were typical of many Evangelicals, but when I got through explaining the matter to him, he seemed to be at ease. His eyes were opened to it, and he finally saw the light. He said it made sense to him, and he could see why Catholics do it now. Before I explain how I got through to him on this issue, let me first explain some of the common misconceptions Evangelicals usually have about prayer to Saints.

Common Evangelical Misconceptions...

  1. Catholics pray to Saints like a form of occultism, sort of like a seance, wherein Catholics try to channel the spirits of the dead.
  2. Catholics actually worship the Saints as little gods because they pray to them.
  3. Catholics believe they HAVE TO pray to the Saints in order to earn their salvation.

Now let me address these misconceptions one-by-one... 

The first misconception is that prayer to Saints is a form of occultism like a seance. This is not the case at all. Occultism is when people attempt to communicate with the dead by leaving God out of the picture. In essence, occultic seances are attempts to push God out of the picture and make contact with the dead using magic. Such activity is a violation of the first commandment and a form of idolatry. Catholics don't do this. When Catholics pray to Saints this is what is really happening. You see, all Christians are connected to each other through the Holy Spirit of God. This is why sometimes we get the overwhelming urge to pray for somebody, and we don't know why. That's the Holy Spirit of God working in us, keeping us in communion with each other. A Christian friend is in need and asks God for help. The Holy Spirit then communicates that need to our souls, and we have the overwhelming desire to pray for that person. It's a very common experience that all Evangelicals are familiar with, or at least, they should be. Well, when we die in the flesh, we are still alive in spirit. The soul in heaven is very much alive. The Scriptures tell us so (Matthew 22:32, Mark 12:27, Luke 20:38). That being the case, this connection we have to each other via the Holy Spirit doesn't cease. If anything it gets stronger in ways we cannot imagine here in this earthly life (1 Corinthians 2:9). So when we die and go to heaven, we are not cut off from our Christian brethren here in this life. When they are in need, that spiritual bond remains, and the Holy Spirit of God communicates to the Saints in heaven what is needed by the Saints on earth. For the Saints in heaven are very aware of what is going on with the Saints on earth (Hebrews 12:1) and they pray for our needs here on earth as they are made aware by the Holy Spirit (Revelation 5:8). They do this alongside the angels in heaven, who are also aware of our needs and lift our prayers to God for us (Revelation 8:3-4). So when Christians communicate with the Saints, they do so through the Holy Spirit of God, not using occultic magic in a ridiculous attempt to push God aside like the heathen do, but rather asking God to get a message to our Christian loved ones on the other side of death, so they can join us in prayer to God interceding for our needs, just as they did while they were alive on earth.

The second misconception is that Catholics worship Saints like little gods. This is a profound misunderstanding not of religion, but of English. The English word "pray" simply means "to ask reverently." Think of Shakespeare when you say this word "I pray thee, sir, wouldest thou hear my request?" Pray simply means to ask in a respectful way. Prayer doesn't mean worship, and that's where Evangelicals often make the big mistake. When I often ask an Evangelical what the word "pray" means, they often respond by saying "worship." That's not a religious error, as I said, that's a linguistic error. It's a failure to grasp a word in English. Asking somebody to do something is not the same as worshipping them. If I ask you to paint my house, does that mean I'm worshipping you? If I ask you to give me a ride to the grocery store, am I worshipping you? If I ask you to pray for me, am I worshipping you? No. Of course not! The same goes for when you're dead. If I still ask you to pray for me, am I worshipping you? No. Of course not! I'm simply asking the Holy Spirit of God to get a message to you so that you can pray for me (to God), and we can pray to God together like we did while you were here on earth. The truth is, Evangelicals do this all the time, without even realising it, every time they talk out loud to a deceased relative, asking that relative to say a prayer to God for them. "Hey Grandma, say a prayer for me, I've got a big test today." But Grandma has been deceased for three years! Some Evangelicals will admit to doing this, and if they do, it's okay. Because if Grandma was a good Christian, and she's likely in heaven, it's actually a very Biblical thing to keep asking for her prayers. Logic would dictate that if you can request prayers from Grandma, you can also request prayers from other people in heaven too. That would include such people as the apostles, other famous Christians in ages past, and yes, even Mary the mother of Christ. Prayer is not worship. It never was. Look up the Biblical definition of worship and you'll clearly see that it always involves full submission to God combined with a sacrifice of some kind. Catholics don't do this with Mary or the Saints. No Christian does. That kind of reverence is reserved for God alone.

The third misconception is that Catholics HAVE TO pray to Saints as some sort of merit, earning our own salvation. Well, this is pure Protestant propaganda, and I know that most Evangelicals don't like to think of themselves as Protestants. However, if they want to lose the Protestant label, they're going to have to lose the Protestant propaganda. For starters, Catholics don't believe we earn our salvation. We believe our salvation is given to us, freely, by the grace of God, and that it is the merit of Jesus Christ that saves us. So this is a strawman argument to say that we are "earning" our salvation. Secondly, prayer to Saints doesn't earn anything. It's just prayer, and when we pray to Saints we're not asking them to do anything for us, other than pray to God. We don't say, "Dear Saint so-and-so, fix my car." Heaven's no! That would be a form idolatry. Rather, we pray like this: "Dear Saint so-and-so, my car is broken, please pray for me in my time of need." That way prayer is reserved for the Saint, but the action (or answer) to prayer is reserved solely for God alone. I pray for my car to be fixed, and the Saint prays with me for the same thing. Then God sends the mechanic who can repair the car at an affordable price, and God arranges some kind people to give me rides while my car is in the shop. Think of the Saints as our prayer-partners in heaven.

The most popular Catholic prayer to a Saint is the Hail Mary. Now, putting aside all Protestant prejudice, as Evangelicals should unless they want to be labelled as Protestants, read this prayer slowly and carefully...

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee (Luke 1:28). Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb (Luke 1:42) Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God (John 1:1, 14), pray for us sinners (Revelation 5:8) now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Question: Is there anything about this prayer that is unbiblical? The first two verses can actually be found in the Bible, almost word-for-word. The third verse is a basic Biblical principle, and as I demonstrated above. So is the fourth verse. Basically, it's a very Biblical prayer, rooted heavily in Scripture. You'll notice that in almost all composed prayers to Saints (people in heaven), the petition usual ends with an appeal for the Saint to pray. That's all! That's Biblical and it's very Catholic, but it doesn't just have to be for Catholics. Evangelicals can do it too, and in fact, if they want to pray like their most ancient Christian ancestors, they should!

Of course, the question is always asked, "why would I pray to a Saint when I can take my prayers directly to God?" The answer is this. You SHOULD take your prayers directly to God. That's the whole point of praying to Saints. When you pray to a Saint (person in heaven) you're asking that person to pray WITH you to God. You're asking that person to assist you in bringing that petition to God. You're not using that person as a "go-between." Rather, you're requesting the assistance of that person as you go to God yourself. It's no different than asking your neighbour to pray for you, or your friend at church. It's the exact same thing. Except now, you're asking a person who is already in heaven to pray for you.

In all of this, however, Catholics are not REQUIRED to pray to Saints. Nobody is putting a gun to our heads or telling us we can't be saved unless we do. That's silly. It's possible for a Catholic to remain in good standing with the Church and never, not once, pray to a Saint. Rather, it's just something we do, because we want to. It's a source of joy for us.

One of the greatest appeals to Christianity over ancient Paganism was the power that Christ has over death. Christ, having been raised from the dead, he holds the keys to death, possessing power over it, and so his followers are not really dead at all, even after their bodies are buried six-feet in the grave. They're still very much alive, and because they are alive, we are still able to communicate with them through the Holy Spirit of God. Death has lost its sting. It has no power over us anymore. Christians in heaven are just as "alive" as Christians on earth. How much do you really believe that? You might say you do, but do you really? How much do you believe it? Are you willing to put your actions where your faith is?

As a convert to Catholicism, I cannot describe how liberating this was to me, and how wonderful it was to freely speak to my deceased grandmother again, even if she couldn't respond. Then to learn that I could pray to others as well, such as the Apostles and Mary! It was beyond liberating. It was empowering. This is what Christ gives to us. Yet one doesn't need to be Catholic to do this. Evangelicals can do this too, and they should. It's Biblical and it's in keeping with the practice of ancient Christianity, long before the Protestant Revolution and all the denominations that came thereafter. In fact, even after the Protestant Revolution, many Protestants (particularly Lutherans and Anglicans) kept a healthy devotion to the Saints for a number of years. It wasn't until later that Protestants started to drop their devotion to the Saints, and that came only after influence by Protestant theologians sympathetic to Islam. If Evangelicals really want to rise above the Protestant label, as many of them claim to, then they had better start to learn how to get in touch with their ancient Christian roots, and start re-adopting the practices of ancient Christians, including prayer to the Saints. A growing number of Evangelicals are already doing this. Admittedly, most aren't talking about it much, for fear of misunderstanding from their Evangelical brethren, but it is a growing trend now. As a Catholic, these Evangelicals aren't afraid to talk to me about, because they know I'll understand. They'll confide in me, telling me that they sometimes pray to their Christian loved ones in heaven, and sometimes even the Apostles or even Mary. One Evangelical I know even prays the Holy Rosary, along with a few Evangelical friends, an Anglican and a Catholic. They do this in the privacy of his home during a prayer meeting. Just because you've never heard of it, doesn't mean it's not happening. In fact, it's probably happening right under your nose, and you've just been left out.

Saint Lucy, patron of blindness, whose name means light, pray for us that spiritual blindness may be lifted, and the light of God's truth about the communion of Saints may be revealed to all Christians.

Click Here to learn more about St Lucy, and if this article has opened your eyes, please share it with others.

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Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and a columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com.' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. This essay and all of Shane's Internet resources come to you (ad-free) thanks to the generosity of benefactors. Please consider becoming a benefactor.

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Comments

Cotton said…
Good evening,

Can you provide us with a bit more information on "Protestant theologians sympathetic to Islam." Greatly enjoy your writings and the subject matters.

God bless you!

Cotton
Shane Schaetzel said…
Cotton,

There is nothing specific, but rather a generality. You see, Protestantism, as a matter of history, has always been more sympathetic to Islam than to Catholicism. Muslims were seen as nobler, because of their extreme monotheism, in comparison to the Catholic Church because it's the "Whore of Babylon" with the Pope as the Antichrist. It's the age-old saying where "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Muslims, of course, live by it, but Protestants adopted it rather quickly.

If you really believe the Pope is the Antichrist, and you really truly believe the Catholic Church is the "Whore of Babylon" then anyone who fights against them is your "friend" even if only because you have a common enemy. Martin Luther was convinced that the Muslims would fight the "Whore" Catholic Church and defeat the "Antichrist" Pope within 100 years of his lifetime. This is a major reason why the Protestant nations stayed out of the fleet that took on the Muslim Turks at the Battle of Lepanto. The Protestant nations wanted NO part of an alliance with the "Antichrist" and "Whore of Babylon" against Muslim Turks that they hoped would win.

This sympathy with Islam played out over the decades in the form of theology. Rather quickly, Protestants adopted the Islamic view on statues and icons, as well as prayer to the Saints. Even the number of the Ten Commandments was reordered to put an over-emphasis on the prohibition against making graven images, isolating it from the first commandment entirely. All of this was to make Protestant culture more compatible with Islamic culture. In the centuries to follow, there were multiple attempts by Protestant countries to make alliances with Muslim countries against Catholic interests.

So this is where it all comes from. Protestant theologians have historically sympathised with Islam against the Catholic Church, and this plays out in Protestant theology as well.

Hope this helps.