Question: I am a person exploring different faiths and where I belong. In the Aug. 17 issue of Our Sunday Visitor, there is an article with the headline “U.S. nun’s cause for sainthood opened.” The article mentions people who have prayed to this woman, yet the Bible says you shall have no other Gods before me. Since we have a personal relationship with God, why would I need a go-between? Why do Catholics see praying to saints as more effective than praying to God directly?
— Katy Hinsch, via email
Answer: Part of your concern is the understanding of the word “pray.” Pray, like all words in the English language, has undergone some change in meaning in emphasis over the centuries. Most modern people in hearing the word pray think of an act of worship, and worship of course is directed only to God.
However, originally, the word “pray” simply meant “to ask.” Even today, in the world of law, lawyers will often conclude a legal briefing with request “The defendant prays that the court will do such and so ...” To pray to a saint is to ask him or her something, not to engage in active worship.
As for your wonderment about going to anyone instead of straight to God, it should be clear that we are always able to go to God and should do so. However, there is also the human instinct that we all have to ask others to pray for us. St. Paul often ask others to pray for him, or for the Church, or for world leaders, etc. St. Paul — and the Holy Spirit speaking through him — does not consider asking others to pray for us to be a futile or a pointless thing to do. Communal prayer helps to build up the body of Christ and to grow in mutual charity.
Biblically, it does seem, there are some who have special influence with God. While this is mysterious, it is illustrated in Scripture. Moses, for example, as well as Abraham and others were able to specially intervene and get God to “reconsider” or delay his plans for punishment. Mary too, at the wedding feast at Cana, was able to get Jesus to make wine for the young married couple, though he seemed reluctant at first to do so. Scripture says that “the fervent prayer of the righteous person is very powerful” (Jas 5:17). So, while our personal prayer is effective because God loves us, it does seem that God also wills that we seek out others to pray for us as well, especially those noted for holiness.
No heaven before Jesus?
Question: Was heaven not available to humans until Jesus died on the cross?
— Teresa Thompson, Des Moines, Iowa
Answer: You are correct, there was no access to heaven until the work of Jesus to reconcile us to the Father. Without this sanctifying grace from Jesus, we could not endure the holy presence of God. Prior to Jesus, the dead were understood to go to Sheol, a shadowy place where the dead slept and were only vaguely aware, as they awaited the coming of the Messiah. After dying on the cross, Jesus went down to the dead and preached to them (cf. 1 Pt 3:19), gathering the righteous to him. And as he ascended to heaven, he led them there (Eph 4:8).
While there are stories of Enoch, Elijah and possibly Moses being caught up to heaven, it is unlikely that the highest heaven is meant in those passages.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.