Can the Holy Year’s New Saints Help You?
THOUSANDS of advocates dedicated ninety-three years of work and prayers to the cause. Together they donated millions of dollars. Finally, the goal—Pope Paul VI, during the 1975 Holy Year, canonized the first native-born American, Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton. “Officially declared by the Church to have attained heaven,” she is viewed as another saint who can help church members to approach God.
In the opinion of The Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Seton’s zealous backers had shared in a process “more arduous than any political campaign and certainly just as expensive as most.” Scores of lawyers and doctors had to be paid to argue the merits of her case and verify “miracles”; multitudes of documents had to be translated into Italian for use by Vatican authorities.
The outlay of money so overtaxed even the Mother Seton Guild’s $32,000 annual budget that an emergency appeal for more money was necessary. Lavish pageantry at the canonization ceremony in Rome is said to have been more costly than even the $100,000 earmarked for the American celebration. A reported $10,000 rental fee for St. Peter’s Basilica alone during one recent beatification ceremony (the last step before canonization) gives some idea of the expenses.
Besides vast sums of money, the making of a saint calls for investigations that sometimes may take hundreds of years. The Vatican’s Congregation of Rites sifts through mountains of written and testimonial evidence for proof of “heroic virtues” and “miracles.” On the other hand, a “general promoter of the faith,” or “devil’s advocate,” presents many legalistic challenges, called animadversions, against the proposed saint at various stages along the way. In one phase of a certain investigation, for example, 55 pages of objections in Latin were countered by a 129-page response—the work of an entire year!
Even the corpse is not left to rest. Wherever possible, Rome wants definite identification of the remains. Once exhumed, the bones of Elizabeth Seton became “first-class relics.” One bone went to Pope Paul; specially boxed fragments rewarded the principal workers for her cause.
Is the outcome worth all the effort? Church spokesmen assert that it is. The mere prospect of canonizing Elizabeth Seton and five others during the Holy Year moved Pope Paul to say that they would be “new stars . . . that shine in the firmament of the Church in order to show to the gaze of modern man . . . that life is worth living for God and the brethren.”
Why So Much Effort?
But you may wonder why so much time, effort and expense are exhausted on investigating candidates for sainthood. Well, according to the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967 edition), for centuries saints were acknowledged without such thorough investigations, but problems arose: “Between the 6th and 10th centuries, the number of deceased who received the cult of saints notably increased. . . . Lives, often legendary, were written. As a result, abuses arose that had to be suppressed. The urgent need of regulating this important matter gradually brought about a certain uniformity of practice.”—Vol. 3, p. 55.
Besides fictitious accounts about the “lives” of the saints, other “abuses” included “commercial traffic in relics and actual fraud,” reports The Catholic Encyclopedia for School and Home (1965 edition, Vol. 9, p. 219). Elaborate canonization procedures adopted in the late sixteenth century succeeded in reducing the average number of saints named annually by about 90 percent, but this method was not without problems of its own—for example, the huge expenses involved.
The First Saints
Do you know that such problems did not exist at all for the first Christians? Methods of identifying saints then were quite different from what they are today. Concedes the New Catholic Encyclopedia: “In the Scriptures, however, the faithful in general are termed ‘the saints,’” or ‘ones who are holy.’ (Vol. 12, p. 852) “St. Paul applied [saint] to all his fellow Christians.”—The Catholic Encyclopedia for School and Home, Vol. 9, p. 538.
If you read along for yourself in the Catholic Jerusalem Bible (JB), for example, you will see that the word “saint” is almost interchangeable with “believer,” and that it applied to living Christians, not only to those who were long dead. The epistles of Paul were often addressed to “all the saints” in a particular location. He told the Ephesian Christians that they were “citizens like all the saints, and part of God’s household.”—Eph. 2:19, JB.
Interestingly, those saints even needed spiritual help themselves at times. The Christian slave Philemon was commended because “they tell me, brother, how you have put new heart into the saints.” And rather than praying to special saints in heaven to intercede for Christians here on earth, all the Ephesian Christians were urged, “Never get tired of staying awake to pray for all the saints.”—Philem. 7; Eph. 6:18, JB.
Evidently, then, the word “saint” meant something entirely different back in Biblical times from what it does to those who venerate saints and their relics now. “Today however,” agrees The Catholic Encyclopedia for School and Home, “[saint] generally applies to one who has been officially declared by the Church to have attained heaven.”—Vol. 9, p. 538.
But what happened to that early Christian view of saints? Why is the present understanding so different from that found in the Bible? The New Catholic Encyclopedia offers this explanation:
“In regard to the intercession of the dead for the living—about which no mention is made in the most ancient books of the O[ld] T[estament], in which is found, as is well known, a very imperfect knowledge of the lot of the dead . . . If in the N[ew] T[estament] writings—set down, one must remember, not as formal treatises but rather as casual pieces—nothing on the subject is explicitly mentioned . . .” (Italics added)
Does it seem reasonable that the Bible is not “explicit” on such a major teaching because it assertedly contains only “imperfect knowledge” and speaks too ‘casually’ about such matters? Or, does this same Encyclopedia’s much stronger admission regarding the veneration of relics more accurately convey the ‘perfect knowledge’?
“It is thus vain to seek a justification for the cult of relics in the Old Testament; nor is much attention paid relics in the New Testament. . . . [The Church ‘father’] Origen seems to have regarded the practice as a pagan sign of respect for a material object.”—Vol. 12, pp. 973, 235, italics added.
This admitted lack of Biblical support for such practices caused early reformers to begin “to raise voices against the cult of relics,” relates this Encyclopedia. So “the Council of Trent took up these errors and in a decree issued in its 25th session made no reference to Scripture but appealed to the Apostolic tradition and the constant practice of the Church” to support veneration of relics.—Vol. 12, p. 238, italics added.
But what if we do ‘make reference to Scripture’ rather than later traditions and ‘practices of the Church’? Can it truly be said that the Bible is ‘not explicit’ on whether saints can help you to pray to God, as the New Catholic Encyclopedia suggests?
Approaching God in His Way
Most Christians know the “Our Father” prayer. Jesus worded it when asked for guidelines on how to pray, and he suggested using the expression “Our Father” to open. Think of the warmth and closeness to God implied by those words! Could you enjoy this warm, fatherly relationship by choosing instead to pray to a saint? The first Christian saints did often pray on behalf of fellow Christians. But this at no time replaced the personal intimacy enjoyed by the Christian in talking to his heavenly Father.—Matt. 6:9; Luke 11:1, 2.
But what about the role of Jesus Christ? Is it not similar to that of a “saint”? You can read in the Catholic New American Bible (NAB) why it is not: “In Christ and through faith in him we can speak freely to God, drawing near him with confidence.” Thus sincere Christians always speak “to God” in prayer, and to no other. At the same time, they acknowledge Christ’s role as sacrificial mediator, which gives them confidence to address God as “Our Father.” Hence, the Bible maintains that “it is through him that we address our Amen to God when we worship together.”—Eph. 3:12; 2 Cor. 1:20, NAB; compare Hebrews 7:24, 25.
Jesus himself plainly ruled out any intermediary role for others in heaven when he told his disciples that “no one can come to the Father except through me,” and some years later, after he and other Christians had already died martyr’s deaths, the Bible still held that “there is only one mediator between God and mankind, himself a man, Christ Jesus.”—John 14:6, 13; 1 Tim. 2:5, JB.
Another reason that the Bible is silent about intercession with God by saints in heaven is that it was an absolute impossibility. Why? Note the apostle Paul’s words to the persecuted Thessalonians about the second coming of Christ:
“We would have you be clear about those who sleep in death, brothers; . . . the Lord himself will come down from heaven at the word of command, at the sound of the archangel’s voice and God’s trumpet; and those who have died in Christ will rise first.”—1 Thess. 4:13-16; compare 1 Corinthians 15:22, 23, 51, 52, NAB.
If those saints who had “died in Christ” were ‘sleeping in death,’ not to rise until Christ’s second coming, how could they have been in a position to intercede in heaven for anyone? Hence, the Bible is silent on this point, not because of imperfections or casualness in the record, but because it is consistent with its own teaching on the resurrection.
Then what about all the time, expense and effort exhausted in the process of canonization? Editor Joel Wells of the Catholic quarterly The Critic observes candidly that “there’s a lot more the church could do with the money spent on it.” Would not such thorough-going effort be far better directed toward teaching sincere people to have confidence in God as the One to turn to when we need help, rather than to saints?
“For it is not as if we had a high priest who was incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us,” says the Bible of Christ Jesus. Hence, it urges: “Let us be confident, then, in approaching [God’s] throne of grace, that we shall have mercy from him and find grace when we are in need of help.” (Heb. 4:14-16, JB) Truly, help from God will come, not by praying to some man-made saint, but by direct prayer to “Our Father in heaven” through the one channel that he has appointed, his Son, Christ Jesus.