“Why do you pray to people who are dead?”
“Do you ask your friends to pray for you?” I responded.
“Yeah, but they aren’t dead,” my evangelical friend countered.
“Why should it matter if they are dead? I assume you believe in life after death.”
But how is it different? My friend never answered the question. For many Protestants, heaven is a hermetically sealed environment. Once there, the occupants have nothing to do with this world. Apparently, Jesus can come and go, but no one else can. For Catholics, there is no real barrier between the natural and supernatural worlds. It is a fluid situation, with the supernatural routinely breaking into the natural. That is why St. Therese of Lisieux could say, “I will spend my heaven doing good on earth.” When I was a Protestant, that statement would have made no sense to me. The saints were role models but nothing else.
My limited view of the saints stemmed from a shrunken understanding of the Church. As the famous writer and convert G. K. Chesterton used to say, “The Church is ever so much larger from the inside than the out.” Protestants tend to think of the Church in terms of an idea, usually some variation on the theme of justification by grace through faith. The Church is the place where the idea is preached. The community is composed of those who have gathered to hear the Word. The saints are those who have born witness before us and now have gone to their eternal rest. Though their witness remains important, we do not call upon them for help.
By contrast, Roman Catholics think first of the concrete life Church—the life of community with tangible links stretching back over the centuries. The Church is a community of believers past and present. That is why Catholics are so comfortable praying to saints. They are a part of our lives. We call on them for help in the same way we ask friends to pray for us.
As a Lutheran, I took for granted that Martin Luther had corrected hundreds of years of misunderstanding about the proper role of the saints. I have now come to see the loss of the saints as one of the great tragedies of the Reformation. The longer I am Catholic, the sadder I become for my Protestant friends who live without talking with our friends in heaven.
The saints do not diminish the role of Jesus but help to keep our eyes focused upon him. It is not an either/or situation. When we call upon the saints, we are calling upon Jesus. Of course, Catholics can approach Jesus directly. But just as we sometimes feel comfortable confiding in a close friend who understands us and our situation, we sometimes want to take our problems to a friend in heaven who we think can sympathize. We ask that friend to pray for us just as we would ask a friend to pray for us on earth. We Catholics are fortunate to have so many friends.