Sunday, January 16, 2011

On the veneration of saints (Part II)

In Part I, we looked at the inaccurate, unjust and uncharitable charge that prayer to saints is idolatry. But more needs to be said about the communion of saints and their role in Catholic theology and prayer life.

Saint comes from the Latin sanctus, which in turn translates the Greek hagios (γιος, = "most holy thing, saint" [Brown-Driver-Briggs]; "sacred (physically, pure, morally blameless or religious, ceremonially, consecrated):—(most) holy (one, thing), saint" [Strong]). While sanctus is ordinarily spoken of as an attribute of God, there are points in the NT letters where Christians are spoken of as "holy ones"; see for example Philippians 4:21-22: "Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brethren who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar's household." Hebrews 13:24: "Greet all your leaders and all the saints." Especially interesting is 1 Peter 1:15-16: "… [B]ut as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I am holy'" [cf. Lev 11:44-45].[1]


This would seem to fly in the face of Jesus' statement, "Only God is good" (Mk 10:18). But that, I believe, is to read too much into one discrete, somewhat cryptic comment. Saint Paul frequently calls the church—in this sense, the community of the faithful—the "body of Christ" (cf. Rom 12:5; Eph 1:22-23, 5:21-32; Col 1:18, 24), and uses the metaphor to make the case that our individual actions and attributes not only affect other members but are also shared:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. … But God has composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together (1 Cor 12:12-13, 24-26).

But membership through baptism in the body of Christ implies more than that we share attributes with one another; it also implies that Christ shares some of his attributes with us:

[All] who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him (Rom 8:14-17).

Because of our participation in the body of Christ, not only through the mechanism of baptism but also through the sacrifice of the Eucharist (1 Cor 10:16), so long as we remain with the body[2] we can't be separated from Christ even by death (Rom 8:35-39). This is important to understand, because God is not God of the dead but of the living (Mk 12:26-27). Jesus' parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus (Lk 16:19-30) shows us that the spirits of those who have passed aren't mindless shades as the old Romans thought, but rather active, intellective beings capable of pleading; in Revelations, the martyrs cry out for vengeance to the Lord and are given comfort (Rev 6:9-11). And when Jesus is transfigured on the Mount, Peter, James and John see him speaking with Moses and Elijah (Mk 9:4).

There is a definite difference between prayer to the saints and the attempt to harness spiritual powers through necromancy (Dt 18:10-11). Saints have no power of their own to affect human affairs, nor can their assistance be compelled; rather, their merit is in their prayers, which angels offer to God (Rev 5:8; cf. Tob 12:12). The only way witchcraft can work, in the light of the Resurrection, is through the power of demons, even for so-called "white witches".[3] Remember I told you that the essence of a prayer is a plea? Catholics ask saints to join their prayers to God with those of the living faithful; witches and necromancers command spirits to use their powers as the spell-caster wills.

Jesus is the "one mediator between God and man" (1 Tim 2:5), the eternal high priest who offers himself as a living sacrifice (Heb 3:1, 7:23-25). But because we participate in his body, we are a kingdom of priests to the Father (cf. Rev 1:6, 5:9-10), and thus participate in his role of mediator and intercessor for each other. This is precisely what we do when we pray for each other. We are called on to pray for each other and "for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions", because it is "good, and … acceptable in the sight of God our Savior" (1 Tim 2:1-3). The efficacy of Christian prayer goes without question among Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants; it shouldn't be doubted of saints and angels.

But is it proper to venerate angels and saints? Apparently Joshua thought so, for at the battle of Jericho, when faced with "the commander of the army of the Lord" (St. Michael?), he "fell on his face to the earth, and worshipped, and said to him, 'What does my lord bid his servant'" (Jos 5:14)? Daniel also fell prostrate in terror before St. Gabriel (Dan 8:17), as did Tobias and Tobit before St. Raphael (Tob 12:16). Angels are beings of great dignity, who "behold the face of my Father in heaven" (Mt 18:10). Those who have left the world in the friendship of the Lord "shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is," because we are children of God and co-heirs with Christ (1 Jn 3:1-2).

Nor is this understanding recent:
  • Clement of Alexandria tells us that the true Christian "prays in the society of angels, as being already of angelic rank, and he is never out of their holy keeping; and though he pray alone, he has the choir of the saints standing with him [in prayer]" (Miscellanies 7:12).
  • Origen wrote, "But not the high priest [Christ] alone prays for those who pray sincerely, but also the angels … as also the souls of the saints who have already fallen asleep" (Prayer 11).
  • In a letter to a fellow priest, Cyprian of Carthage writes, "Let us remember one another in concord and unanimity. Let us on both sides [of death] always pray for one another. Let us relieve burdens and afflictions by mutual love, that if one of us, by the swiftness of divine condescension, shall go hence first, our love may continue in the presence of the Lord, and our prayers for our brethren and sisters not cease in the presence of the Father's mercy" (Letters 56[60]:5).
  • In the middle of his speech on Simeon and Anna, Methodius suddenly breaks out into a Marian hymn: "Hail to you forever, Virgin Mother of God, our unceasing joy, for to you do I turn again. You are the beginning of our feast; you are its middle and end; the pearl of great price that belongs to the kingdom; the fat of every victim, the living altar of the Bread of Life [Jesus] …" (op. cit., 14).

This doesn't exhaust the possible patristic quotations, but the ones given all pre-date the Edict of Milan in 313 when, according to some Evangelical pseudo-histories, Constantine supposedly "introduced" Catholicism.[4]

So what's the difference between beatification and canonization? Although it's licit in canon law to venerate both, beatification is more permissive while canonization is definitive. That's to say, beatification isn't generally accorded the protection of papal infallibility; one is permitted to have doubts about the blessed's sainthood, but one is also free to venerate. Canonization, on the other hand, "is the supreme glorification by the Church of a Servant of God raised to the honors of the altar with a decree declared definitive and preceptive for the whole Church, involving the solemn Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff" (Congregation for the Causes of Saints, New Procedures in the Rite of Beatification [2005], I:2). At this point, recognition of the person's sanctity is mandatory and universal.

The author of Hebrews enjoins us, "Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith" (Heb 13:7). At bare minimum, saints and the blessed are models of Christian living. It's true that only God makes saints. Canonization is simply the Church's formal, authoritative recognition that God made saints out of these sinners. As such, they're held up to us as examples for our own edification. At most, the veneration of angels and saints adds a deeper, richer level of meaning and experience to the "Catholic thing".

[1] Scriptural citations are from RSV; KJV also uses "saint". NIV translates hagioi as "God's people", which seems to me is an attempt to evade the doctrinal implications.
[2] This is a crucial distinction; while nothing outside ourselves can tear us away from Christ, we are perfectly capable of losing salvation through our own acts of free will (see Mt 7:21, 24:13; Rom 11:22; 1 Cor 10:11-12; Gal 5:4; Heb 6:4-6). Once saved is not always saved.
[3] When Saul had the witch of Endor raise the spirit of Samuel, Jesus had not yet opened up the gates of Sheol (see 1 Sam 28:3-19; 1 Pet 3:19).
[4] The Christian Church was already known as "Catholic" by the end of the first century: "Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church" (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8, ca. 110).