We often pray for the intercession of the saints during Mass and our church sanctuaries are filled with images of saints. How can we deepen our understanding of our relationship to the saints?
Intercessory prayer has a complex history in the Church. The post-Vatican II era has seen an effort to recapture a more biblical understanding of intercessory prayer, based on a century of biblical and historical studies. Drawing on this scholarship, this article will attempt to elucidate where we are in this effort and the best current understanding of intercession to the saints. The focus will be on intercession directed through the saints in the current Catholic sacramentary (Roman Missal) for the Mass. For as the Catholic bishops pointed out at Vatican II, all Catholic devotions “should be so drawn up that they … accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some fashion derived from it, and lead the people to it, since, in fact, the liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any of them” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 13). The first and best place for Catholics to learn about prayer is in the Mass. From this they can be more easily led to a solidly founded devotion in private prayer.
The Catholic Eucharistic Celebration or Mass has its roots in the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples before he died, which was celebrated in the manner of the Jewish Passover. This meal was filled with remembrance of God’s goodness and mighty works that culminated in Jesus’ own life, death, and resurrection. At this meal Jesus told his disciples that they should repeat this celebration in remembrance of him. Following Jesus’ command, we have as the central Catholic celebration a Mass with two main parts. Scriptural readings recall God’s work in history and especially in Jesus Christ. Then we lift up our hearts in grateful remembrance of God’s main gifts to us — the gift of Jesus and of his Spirit in our hearts now, and the hope which Jesus brings that we will share in his resurrection forever. The other elements of the Mass can best be understood as embellishing the readings and remembrance.
When we address the saints, it is more accurate to say that we pray not “to” them but “with” them.
Early on in the Church’s history Saint Jerome mistakenly rendered the Greek word for sacrifice (hilastérion) as “propitiation” in his Latin Vulgate translation, in its three New Testament appearances. The Council of Trent, in a protective mode during the Counter-Reformation, described Jerome’s Vulgate translation as “authentic,” which some would interpret as fully authoritative, even infallible. But modern scholarly study has shown conclusively that Christ’s sacrifice, and our remembrance of it, is meant to impact us, not to propitiate or appease God, or change God’s attitude toward us.1 In expiation we are the ones who are changed and made more receptive toward what God is constantly trying to effect in us. Jerome’s mistranslation has left an impact on Christian prayer and on the Mass. The current Latin version of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, to which after 2003 all translations were required to conform, still retains the word “propitiation” in paragraph 2, thus justifying an interpretation of the Mass prayers in accord with Jerome’s translation.
Intercession is mentioned in the Collect prayer of many memorial Masses for saints, where we commonly pray that we might be “commended by their intercession and spurred on by their example.” And in Eucharistic Prayer III we mention individual saints and “all the Saints, on whose constant intercession in your presence we rely for unfailing help.” Here we will be presenting an interpretation of these prayers that will accord with the understanding of the Mass as expiatory of us, not as propitiation impacting God. This receives support from many verses in the New Testament, such as: Jesus’ words that “Your Father knows what you need before you ask” (Mt 6:8); the sayings of Saint Paul that “He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?” (Rom 8:32); and Saint Augustine’s admonition, included in the Office of Readings, that we should not think that “we can instruct the Lord or prevail on him” but that in prayer we are “reminding ourselves” and “stirring up our desires” to be in accord with God’s most salutary will for us (Sunday, Week 29).
Proper Meaning of Intercession
Synonyms given for “intercession” in the dictionary are “intervention, mediation, negotiation, arbitration, reconciliation,” all of which suggest impacting someone else instead of being transformed ourselves. Careful instruction on this matter is necessary to assist Catholics to derive all the benefits intended from the Mass and to forestall any fixation of their prayer at an unfruitful level.
The dictionary meanings of “negotiation, arbitration, conciliation” are all misleading as descriptions of Christian prayer. But we need to take a closer look at intervention and mediation. The intervention of saints in response to prayers, including miraculous cures through their intercession, is a Catholic belief. But in calling on the saints, we must be careful not to bring God down, or to prefer our will to God’s infinite benevolence. Even in the rare cases of miraculous help when we ask a saint to intercede for us, what is happening at a deeper level is that we are taking refuge in the all-enfolding community of the redeemed, approaching God through saintly symbols of Christ’s victory and of our hope. Saints turn us in confidence toward God whose love for us is unbounded, allowing God’s work to be more effective in us, and through us in others.2 When we address the saints, it is more accurate to say that we pray not “to” them but “with” them. This “expresses the true relationship among Christ, the saints, and petitioners conscious of the inherent unity of all human persons in the body of Christ. …Saints are in a perpetual attitude of prayer to which we consciously join ourselves when we invoke them, in this religious act responding to God’s summons.”3 The Second Vatican Council adds: “Let them teach the faithful that our communion with those in heaven, provided that it is understood in the fuller light of faith according to its genuine nature, in no way weakens, but conversely, more thoroughly enriches the latreutic worship we give to God the Father, through Christ, in the Spirit” (Lumen Gentium, 51).
In the early centuries of the Church the belief grew that martyrs and saints in heaven pray with us and for us.
God the Father took the initiative of reconciling humankind and all of creation into oneness in Christ, by sending Jesus to save us from the alienation which was a part of human existence from the beginning. It was God’s plan from before creation that we should be drawn as free persons to choose to love God and to live in charity with one another, through divine grace and through the Spirit that God gives without measure. We read that “In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him” (1 Jn 4:9). Jesus is the one mediator between God and humans, and even his mediation of graces was instigated by the Father’s benevolent will toward us. It is to this will of the Father that we try to conform through all proper Christian prayer. A specific word for “intercede” occurs in the New Testament only at 1 Timothy 2:1-5 where it confirms the above understanding: “I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions (έντεύξεις), and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our saviour, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth. For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race.”
In the early centuries of the Church the belief grew that martyrs and saints in heaven pray with us and for us. They desire only what is best for us, as does God. Such intercession is still reflected in the Collect prayers of Masses commemorating saints. In these we pray that God will help us to imitate their example and learn from their teaching. As often as not, we ask also that we might profit from the saint’s “intercession.” The English translation of 1973, in its loose rendering of the Latin, spoke in the Collect prayers of the saint’s “prayers” for us, rather than their “intercession.” The Latin original retains the word “intercession” which was restored (along with many other more precise translations) with the introduction of the new English ritual in 2011. Also, Eucharistic Prayer III mentions “all the Saints, on whose constant intercession in your presence we rely for unfailing help.”
How then should we understand these “intercessions”? The Church canonizes saints as models of the Christian life, suitable for our encouragement and imitation. Praying to them reminds us of our membership in the all-encompassing community of saints. Karl Rahner is among the recent theologians who have tried to place veneration of saints on a more solid foundation. Rahner reminds us “that every life lived in faith and love is of permanent value and significance for all, and that the redeemed man in the state of blessedness receives and lives this significance of his life.”4 By invocation of a saint “we take refuge in faith in the all-enfolding community of all the redeemed,” where “each is responsible for all.” They are “creative models of holiness.”5
Jesus is the one mediator between God and humans, and even his mediation of graces was instigated by the Father’s benevolent will toward us.
We find some confirmation of the above in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, where the emphasis has moved somewhat beyond the Council of Trent which referred to the saints as giving “powerful help in obtaining benefits from God through Jesus Christ” (Session 25). The Catechism of 1993 says that intercession “leads us to pray as Jesus did, … (to) draw near to God through him” (2634). It is also “an expression of the communion of saints. In intercession, he who prays looks ‘not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others’” (2635). We pray this way conscious that “the first Christian communities lived this form of fellowship intensely” and that “the intercession of Christians recognizes no boundaries,” including everyone, as the Catechism specifically mentions those in high positions, persecutors, and the salvation of those who reject the Gospel (2636). From this description we might conclude that our intercessions at Mass have a purpose similar to the Eucharistic Prayer itself, to further our transformation into more Christlike persons, who love as Christ has loved. Saints mediate to us an understanding of what it means to practice a charity that is universal and they give us the encouragement to pursue this ideal, as we follow in their footsteps.
1 John Zupez, “Is the Mass a Propitiatory or Expiatory Sacrifice?” Emmanuel, 125 (Nov/Dec 2019), 378-381.
2 Patricia A. Sullivan, “A Reinterpretation of Invocation and Intercession of the Saints,” Theological Studies, 66 (2005), 383, 393. http://cdn.theologicalstudies.net/66/66.2/66.2.6.pdf
3 Sullivan, 398.
4 Karl Rahner, “Why and How Can We Venerate the Saints?” Theological Investigations 8, trans. David Bourke (New York, Seabury), 1977, 23.
5 Karl Rahner, “The Church of the Saints,” Theological Investigations 3, trans. Karl-H. and Boniface Kruger (New York, Seabury), 1974. 100.