|The Theology of Prayer - Fenton - Ch. 7
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PRAYER TO GOD AND TO THE SAINTS
A. All prayer is addressed ultimately to God as to the One from whom we wish to receive the favors we ask.
B. We can pray to our Lord as God, or we can ask the favor of His prayer, which He performs as an act of His human nature. In order to obviate any misunderstanding the Church, in her public prayer, petitions Him as God.
C. Prayer to our Lady and the saints is a perpetual practice of the Catholic Church.
D. It is necessary to seek the intercession of our Lady and of the saints in order to take advantage of the aids God places at our disposal for the attainment of our salvation.
E. Prayer to our Lady has a special place in Christian life.
F. In praying to our Lady and the saints we give them the honor and veneration which God wills us to render them.
G. We do not pray to the souls in purgatory nor to the living.
A. Since the definition of prayer is the petition of fitting things from God, it is obvious that prayer is prayer only insofar as it is addressed to God. But, at the same time there are many formulas in which we call upon our Blessed Lady and upon the saints of God to intercede for us, and these formulas are themselves expressions of Christian prayer. This aspect of Christian teaching is rendered intelligible when we consider the teaching on prayer in the light of the essential doctrine of the Church, and the inherently social character of man’s supernatural life. For the Catholic Church is such that the petitions which its children make to their God are, and ought to be, fortified by the intercession of those who have gone before us and have achieved the eternal reward which God keeps in store for those who have loved Him.
In the first place, it is obvious that there is one basic difference between the petition which we address to God, and the formula we use in addressing our fellows in the mystical body, the saints of God. We speak to God in prayer as to the One who is to grant our petitions.1 The desire of Christian hope which we express to God in prayer is something which is to be fulfilled by Him alone. The object of all our prayer is ultimately God Himself, to be possessed and enjoyed in the eternal felicity of the beatific vision. That is a supernatural good, one which can be granted only by God Himself. All the power of all the creatures in the universe would never suffice to give it to us apart from God.
Likewise, prayer, as an act of religion, is an act which gives to God the service which is due to Him because of His supreme excellence. Obviously this service is something which is given to God alone. When we pray to the saints, we do not in any way offer them the honor that is given to God. The cult or service of God is something specific, something which is known by the name of latria. That which is given to the saints is of another type altogether.
B. Since our Lord has two distinct natures, there are two distinct wars of praying to Him. As God, we pray to Him as the One whom we ask to fulfill the wish that we express in prayer. As God likewise we pay to Him the service and the honor of latria. But, since He is man, and since He has a human nature which He assumed in order to suffer and die for our sins, it would be perfectly possible to address our petitions to Him, and to ask His prayers for us. As a matter of fact, it is one of the teachings of divine revelation which the Catholic Church brings to us, that our Lord actually does intercede for us in heaven. We believe that His prayer for us will continue until the end of time. But, as a matter of policy and discipline, in order to obviate any misunderstanding which might possibly arise from such a course of action, we do not pray to Him in this way. We act thus in order to insist upon the truth of His divinity, in order not to lose sight of the fact that He who is the Head of the mystical body is in reality the living God.
In the official prayers of the Catholic Church it is most usual to address the petitions to the Father, through the Son and in the unity of the Holy Ghost. We are quite aware, of course, of the fact that the Three Divine Persons act together in the granting of our petition. They are not distinguished by any operation on creatures. But this formula of prayer is our expression of faith in the central and essential Catholic doctrine of the Blessed Trinity. It is only fitting that the prayer which is based upon Christian faith should manifest the central teaching of divine revelation.
C. When we consider the matter of prayer to our Blessed Lady, to the angels, and to the saints, we could, if we wished, enter into the polemic side of the treatise. We could examine the teaching of the Church which shows that since the very beginning prayer to the departed heroes of the Church Militant has been a part of Catholic practice, and the legitimacy of such prayer an essential part of Catholic doctrine. But it is not the purpose of this treatise to deal with the polemic aspect of this question. It is sufficient for us to realize that the Council of Trent taught the legitimacy and the utility of prayer to the saints, thus defining and confirming the age-old Catholic traditions in this regard.2 It is our purpose here to examine the meaning and the implications of the fact that we can and should beg the saints of God to make intercession for us.
In the first place, the teaching that we can and should pray to the saints presupposes two other elements of Catholic doctrine, the teaching that the saints can, and actually do, intercede for us at the throne of God, and the fact that the saints can know of the petitions we make to them. The prayer of the saints themselves is the subject of a later chapter. We know that the saints know of our prayers to them by the fact that they enjoy the beatific vision, thereby possessing a happiness in which every legitimate desire is and must be fulfilled. The knowledge of the petitions that pertain to them is the object of a legitimate desire, and as such is something granted to the saints of God, constituting one secondary and accidental aspect of their beatitude.
There are two basic reasons why prayer to the saints is a fitting part of the activity of the Catholic. In the first place this activity on our part constitutes a practical recognition of the order that God has instituted in the world, and in the economy of the spiritual life, that arrangement whereby the higher things are to contribute in the government and the perfection of those which are in less exalted positions. Secondly it is the expression of the practical honor and recognition which God desires us to render to the saints as the heroes of the supernatural order.
D. Prayer to the saints is practically obligatory, an act which has its own necessity in the spiritual life. The saints are constituted as superior to us, in a position to help us, and God wishes us to take practical cognizance of this fact. They are superior to us in their own order, having arrived at the term of that life of habitual grace which we are to live here on earth as a preparation for the life of heaven. This does not mean, of course, that every saint in heaven has a degree of charity superior to every person in the state of grace here on earth. As a matter of fact, the opposite is true. It is perfectly possible for a soul here on earth to have a grade of habitual grace higher and more intense than that enjoyed by some of the souls actually in heaven. But the state or the condition of these souls is definitely superior to ours. They actually possess the infinite Good toward which we tend in this world. Thus they are in a position to be of assistance to us. God wills that we should take practical cognizance of this fact by calling upon them to aid us. We are bound to them by the ties of charity, the love which unites us to God and to all of those who are called upon to be the children and the friends of God. And the same charity which impels them to love God and to love us, will make it possible for us to approach them.
Joseph a Spiritu Sancto expresses the common teaching of the Catholic Church when he tells us that it is obligatory for all, even those constituted in the highest dignity or the highest perfection to pray to the saints here on earth.3 Sylvius explains this obligation by stating that we are bound by a natural law to observe and utilize the order which God has instituted in the world.4 The affair of our salvation is not merely an individual concern. It is an operation in which the entire Church of God, the mystical body of Christ, is meant to take part, each group within that body contributing according to its place and influence. The saints in heaven are meant to be active causes of our attainment of eternal life. And God has ordered that we should have recourse to them and implore their aid.
Sylvius adds the illuminating note that our need is so great that we have no choice other than to have recourse to the means which God has placed at our disposal.5 This necessity for applying to the Saints for aid is a means which God has given us for realizing in a practical manner the seriousness of our situation. We live on this earth for a few years. In that time our place for all eternity is decided. The forces of evil, the spirits who have fallen from grace, are arrayed against us. The world in which we live constitutes a serious obstacle to the achievement of our eternal happiness. Our own natures, damaged by original sin, weigh us down and tend against the accomplishment of our salvation. God offers us His grace, sufficient for our needs, but such is our position that it would be criminally foolish for us to neglect any of the agencies He offers us for the attainment of our ultimate end.
In the last analysis, just as prayer to God renders the soul apt and disposed to receive the graces and favors which God wills to give it as the effect of prayer, so our prayer to the saints renders us fitted to receive these gifts. By praying to the saints we exercise and realize the life of grace which God has given us, and we give a practical, vital manifestation of the humility, respect, love, and dependence which God wills us to have toward these citizens of heaven.
E. The obligation to have recourse to the saints is evidently of particular importance with regard to prayer to our Blessed Lady. Because of her special place in the scheme of salvation, recourse to her is particularly necessary. It is Catholic doctrine that Mary is the mediatrix of all graces. No favor in the supernatural order comes to us independently of her. The constant tradition of the Catholic Church testifies to the necessity of our appealing to her prayers. It is strictly possible for a person to achieve salvation without praying to our Blessed Lady. But, for those who are cognizant of her place, and her dignity in the scheme of salvation, neglect to pray to her would be a serious neglect of a magnificent aid to salvation. It would imply a carelessness about the affair of salvation that could hardly be less than fatal.
Since the position of our Blessed Lady in the economy of salvation is quite unique, there is no other individual saint to whom recourse is as necessary as is prayer to her. St. Joseph and St. Michael the Archangel are patrons of the universal Church, and as such the Church as a whole prays for their protection. Individual members of the Church are urged to have recourse to them, but there is no absolute necessity of such prayer on the part of each individual. The necessity for praying to the saints is indefinite, as to its objects, except in the case of our Blessed Mother. As a matter of fact, however, the catalogue of saints is so extended as to include individuals of nearly every race and walk of life, individuals to whom the faithful as individuals, and the Church as an organization, pray. And, in time of any serious difficulty it is customary to invoke the intercession of those saints which have had similar experiences during the course of their lives in this world.
F. The prayer which we make to the saints, or to be more exact, the petitions which we make to God to be fulfilled by Him because of the intercession of the saints which we ask in prayer, is meant to be not only an act which contributes to the achievement of our salvation, but an operation in which we express the love and respect which God wills us to have for those who have so lived and died as to be with Him in heaven forever. The love which binds us together as members of the Church is a love which extends itself to the saints, the citizens par excellence of the kingdom of heaven. That love for them is a love of benevolence, a love in which we wish them to have the honor and the respect which they deserve. We give them that honor and respect when we pray to them, and ask time favor of their intercession with God.
The honor that is due to the saints is a practical recognition of their excellence and their dignity. That recognition is practical and vital when we ask their intercession, and acknowledge, by striving to avail ourselves of it, their influence at the throne of God. They are our fellow citizens. Our own homeland is, in the final analysis, that same heaven in which they dwell, and are to dwell forever. We show ourselves appreciative of the excellence of these, our triumphant brothers and sisters in Christ, by invoking their aid on our journey home.
G. With the recognition of the saints in heaven the list of those to whom we are to pray is closed. It is the more common teaching of the theologians that we are not to invoke the aid of the souls in purgatory. The most cogent reason for that assertion is to be found in the practice of the Church itself. The prayer of the Church, based and modeled upon the Lord’s prayer, and expressed in the formulas of the sacred liturgy makes no mention of any appeal for prayers to the souls in purgatory. It is understood, at least tacitly, in these official prayer formulas that, in the mysterious designs of God’s providence these souls are in such a condition that it is our duty and our privilege to pray for them rather than to them.6
There are two reasons which actuate the more conservative and probable teaching that we are not to pray to the souls in purgatory. The first is the fact that we have no certain guarantee that they would know of the existence of any petitions which we would make to them. The second, and by far the more important, is the probability that the souls in purgatory, because of their condition, do not exercise the active causality of prayer at all. This second reason will be the subject of a special chapter in this book.
However, it is well to note that the possibility of our praying to the souls in purgatory hardly enters into the field of theology, strictly so called. Theology is the science in which men examine the implications and the virtualities of the revelation which God has given to the world, and which the Catholic Church, the mystical body of Christ, proposes as revealed by God. That science exists, not for the sake of the conclusions which it draws, but for the sake of contributing toward a more perfect appreciation of the content of revelation, to which we assent by faith. Theological conclusions, then, are those statements which are seen as contained virtually in the datum of faith itself. They are not merely statements which are in harmony with the content of Christian doctrine. They must be statements illuminative of the very teaching which God has given, and which the Church offers to men.
Examining the question of prayer to the souls in purgatory in the light of this norm, we find that the fact that such teaching is authorized in the actual content of divine revelation which was closed with the death of the last Apostle is never claimed, even by those who hold that we can and should pray to the holy souls. The arguments which are adduced in favor of such prayer are always those which are meant to show that this practice is not incompatible with the actual Catholic doctrine on purgatory. Such conclusions, even if they were justified, would be only the extrinsic virtualities spoken of by the theologians. They do not belong to the actual fabric of theology, and they could never he endowed with proper theological certitude.
There is only nee more point to he considered in treating of those to whom prayer is made. We do not pray to people who are still living, even though those people are authentically saints. We are expected to ask prayers from one another, and in this way to acknowledge practically the corporate character of our struggle for sanctification. But we are definitely not expected, as St. John Chrysostom remarked rather dryly, to ask the prayers of our fellow Christians with the object of exempting ourselves from the work of prayer.7
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