Every Catholic, at some point, is asked by a co-worker or relative, “What’s the deal with you Catholics and saints?” To a lot of our fellow Christians, devotion to the saints in heaven seems strange and unbiblical. That is why I was excited a few Sundays ago, when the Scripture readings at Mass helped to illustrate some of the reasons the saints are a biblical and important part of Christian life.
We heard Saint Paul’s letter to the Phillippians, “Join with others in being imitators of me, brothers and sisters, and observe those who conduct themselves according to the model you have in us!” (Phil 3:17) This is similar to his statement in 1 Cor 11: “Be imitators of me, as I imitate Christ!” But wait a minute… why is Paul trying to convince people to follow his example, since he is himself a weak human being? Shouldn’t he just point to Jesus, who alone was perfect, and cut out the “middle man” so to speak?
Clearly, Paul realized that the Philippians needed heroes to follow and imitate in their walk with Christ. Imitating Paul would not be a dishonor to Jesus, but rather would help the Philippians grow closer to Jesus. And even though Paul is no longer walking here on earth, it is still helpful to us to follow his advice and imitate his example! He is not dead, but alive in heaven, more alive than we are right now!
Saint Paul, then, is one of the holy men and women who Catholics refer to as saints. “Saint” comes from the latin word meaning “holy.” You and I are called to be saints right now during our time on earth, and then to rejoice as saints forever in heaven! So while everyone in heaven is a saint, there are several thousand individuals whose lives of holiness were so inspiring that the Catholic Church has declared that they are in heaven and worthy of our imitation, like Saint Paul. These saints are our heroes in the faith. We do not worship them (we worship God alone!), but rather we want to love Jesus as they did. We see no problem in putting their pictures on the wall or even having statues of them, just like Americans put up posters of athletes or chisel monuments to great political leaders. It makes God happy that we imitate these spiritual giants, because they are his beautiful masterpieces.
We also heard at Mass the Gospel reading of the Lord’s Transfiguration (Luke 9). On a hilltop, several disciples watched in amazement as Jesus became dazzling white and revealed his true glory. The Old Testament greats Moses and Elijah then appeared and began conversing with Jesus! Now, these men were dead as a doornail, and yet Jesus was able to talk to them! And not only that, but they clearly seemed to know what was going on in the Lord’s ministry and seemed to somehow give him advice for the days ahead (v. 15). In my prayer on this passage, I imagined a really lively conversation which gave Jesus a lot of comfort and strength. I can picture Moses, for example, chuckling with Jesus about how stubborn and thick-headed the Israelites were, and kind of patting him good-naturedly on the back, encouraging him to stick with it even though these twelve apostles just never seem to get anything!
People often object to the saints because they are “dead,” but this episode illustrates that those who have died in God’s friendship are alive, and Jesus was able and willing to speak with them. Moreover, as passages like this show, it is possible for those in heaven to understand and know what is happening here on earth because we are all united as members of the one, living body of Christ. And if it is possible that even Jesus in his humanity was strengthened by his conversation with Moses and Elijah, doesn’t it make sense that we can be greatly strengthened by friendship with the saints and by asking them to pray for us?
There is much more that one could go into, but I think that the best thing is to try it out and see for yourself. In my own life there have been many times when my spiritual life has taken a dramatic turn after reading the life story of a particular saint. I even owe my priestly calling to watching a movie about Saint Damien of Molokai in fifth grade! Why not give yourself a spiritual boost and pick up a book or movie about one of these great followers of Jesus Christ? You might find not only a model, but also a friend and companion on your walk with Christ!
To go deeper:
* “Why do Catholics pray to Saints?” by David MacDonald
* Great Saint Movies on amazon.comApologetics, Saints