Culture At Large

Should we talk to dead saints?

Paul Vander Klay

As part of the beatification process of Pope John Paul II, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre has testified that she was cured through the intercession of the late Pope. Because the Pope is involved, many Protestants will grumble. But how many others haven't flocked to be prayed for by some pastor or evangelist, especially if the word on the street is that when these representatives get involved, people are healed?

It is very common that people in my congregation will ask me to pray for them because they imagine the prayers of the pastor might work better than their own prayers. Doesn't the book of James state that the prayer of a righteous man availeth much? Does it make a difference whether this righteous man is dead or alive?

The conflict over praying to saints is a long and painful one between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Roman Catholic and Orthodox teachers will usually remind Protestants that they recognize the difference between praying TO someone and asking a departed saint to pray WITH them. Who better to ask for help with your prayers than Jesus' mother, after all?

It is not my intention to encourage a Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox flame war, but I would like to make 10 observations about this issue. A large part of the debate that is ignored is the question of communication with dead people. It's easy to say "I believe in the communion of the saints," but what do we really mean by that?

The history of communicating with the dead is a long one, a murky one, one inhabited by spiritists, mediums, folk religions, charlatans and the grieving. Maybe this list can shed light on the discussion.

1. We don't have any reason to presume communication with the dead is possible based on Scripture. Shadowy counter-examples may be cited, like Saul and the witch of Endor or the Mount of Transfiguration, but I think these might count as exceptions rather than the rule.

2. There is a bias and at times absolute prohibition in Scripture against trying to establish communication with dead people, especially two-way communication.

3. We have no reason to believe that dead people have additional powers in death which they didn't possess in life. Why would we imagine a dead saint can do something for us that a living one can't?

4. We have no reason to believe that the prayers of dead people get more "traction" than the prayers of living people. This alone is an enormous topic. How can we judge the "effectiveness" of any prayer?

5. Some have offered the analogy that finding a saint in heaven is like knowing a staffer at City Hall. God, however, is a bit more complicated than the mayor: more just and better informed.

6. The instinct that relational bonds are not severed by death is a good one and shouldn't be dismissed or discouraged.

7. It would be ungodly to start slapping around orphans and widows for whispering to dead loved ones in quiet, fearful and lonely moments.

8. Roman Catholics and Orthodox churches often have a much better sense of history than most American Protestants. We shouldn't necessarily dismiss them out of hand.

9. The conflict of the Reformation has made many Protestants characterize the Roman Catholic church in an ungenerous and often unfair light.

10. There is more we don't know than we know.

The best words on prayer remain Jesus' own. God is our Father and wants to give good gifts to his children. If we ask for an egg will he give us a scorpion? What do you think?

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, Theology, Prayer, Other Religions, News & Politics, North America