Saints, Intercession of

views updated


Omitting the complex history of the term sanctus (see Delehaye, Sanctus: Essai sur le culte, 2459), and stating in advance that the Church has never authentically proposed a complete definition, one may offer the following theological description: A canonized saint is a member of the Roman Catholic Church who hearing and unconditionally responding to God's call has led a life of ever-increasing union and conformity with Christ through the practice of charity and of all the other Christian virtues, and who, because of this virtuous life, confirmed by subsequent miracles, has been proclaimed by the infallible teaching authority of the Church as being a person particularly pleasing to God. In fact, God through miracles has made known His will that the saint be counted by the other members of the Mystical Body of Christ as mediator and intercessor per Christum, cum ipso, et in ipso for all those who have not yet reached the end of their journey toward the full glorification of God in heavenly blessedness, as worthy of the religious cult of dulia, as visible proof of His providential action in the Church, and therefore the norm and example of a life typically and truly Christian (see Molinari, I santie il loro culto, 2526).

In Catholic Theology. Three elements may be distinguished in this description: (1) the constituent qualities of a saint; (2) the act of ecclesiastical authority by which a person is declared a saint; (3) the reasons why God raises up saints in the Church and wishes them to be recognized as such. [For (2) see canonization of saints (history and procedure); here (1) is principally discussed, but (3) also receives some consideration.]

When one says that a saint is a person who has attained an eminent degree of union and conformity with Christ, one means that his greatness derives from and is founded primarily and wholly on Christ, who by means of grace has invited the person to follow Him, has elevated him to share in His life, and has sustained him in all his actions (see elevation of man). However, at the same time one must point out that grace, by elevating the liberty of the human person, has rendered it capable of freely responding to God's love and of surrendering itself entirely to Christ in order to live in Him. The saint, consequently, is the masterpiece of God's grace, but precisely as such, he is at the same time the model of a free person.

Contrary to what people sometimes believe, neither extraordinary deeds, nor the graces of the mystical life, nor the accidental phenomena that can accompany it (see mysticism) are what constitute a saint, but rather the fact that united to Christ he has lived in the practice of the virtues of his state (and particularly the love of God and neighbor) after a manner truly Christoform, that is, faithful, constant, ready, to the point of heroism (see virtue, heroic; holiness).

Faithful to the promptings of grace and sharing with ever-increasing intensity in the life of the Incarnate Word (see indwelling, divine), the saints continue to develop and with special efficacy to diffuse the redemptive activity of Christ in the midst of and for the greater good of His Mystical Body. By the example of their lives they irradiate the lovableness of Christ, thus drawing souls to Him and teaching them to lead a truly Christian life in the most varied situations and circumstances. Above all, however, in virtue of the fundamental law of intercommunion among its members, the whole Mystical Body benefits from the heroic life of labor, the prayers, and the sacrifices of saints (see church, articles on; mystical body of christ; communion of saints), that is, insofar as by God's will the distribution of divine grace has been made at least partly dependent on the contribution that the members make to the Head, and hence on their merits and on the prayers they offer for others. This will not seem surprising once the true meaning of justification, grace, and incorporation in christ is understood. For the members of the Mystical Body through the gift of themselves to Christ, enable Him, dwelling within them, to avail Himself of the unique riches of their personal existence, to overcome the limitations of His individual human nature (hypostatically assumed by the Word and most perfect, but, nevertheless, created and therefore limited), and to complete in this way qualitatively and quantitatively the work of Incarnation and Redemption.

Invocation and Intercession. The foregoing statements help to clarify the true meaning of the invocation and intercession of the saints. If, in virtue of the principles given above, Christ, availing Himself of the free contribution of His members, completes in them His life and activity and applies at least in partthrough this very giftthe fruit of His life and activity, it is obvious that the members who receive the benefits that derive from this contribution ought to feel particularly obliged and grateful to those who have freely given it in Christ. But since the life and activity of the members of the Mystical Body of Christ do not cease with life on earth, but, on the contrary, are ennobled by their entrance into life eternal with Christ, where they enjoy more intimate participation in the glorious life of Christ Himself, who "lives always to make intercession" (Heb 7.25), the saint's ardent concern for the spread of God's kingdom in souls is intensified when, in the light of celestial glory, he understands with greater clarity the spiritual needs of those on earth, and with love inflamed by the beatific vision longs to see Him glorified by these who are still on the road to eternal happiness. see beatific vision; heaven (theology of). Prompted by this disinterested love, the saint offers in Christ and with Christ his merits and prayers for wayfarers, becoming their advocate and protector; that is to say, he intercedes for them with Christ and through Him with the Father. Those on earth, for their part, respond to the saint's intercession not only by expressions of gratitude and by the acknowledgement of his supernatural excellence, but also by the invocation of his efficacious assistance in their own spiritual and material needs (see cult; dulia). Thus between saint and those on earth there is established a bond of confident intimacy, like that existing between older and younger brothers, a bond that, far from detracting from the relationship with Christ and with God, enriches and deepens it, just as does every act of truly supernatural love among the members of the Mystical Body of Christ.

Considering the saints, then, in this theological perspective, one understands how they, more than other Christians, contribute to the building up of the whole Christ, Head and members, and at the same time to the glorification of the Most Holy Trinity intended and willed by God in this historic order as the praise offered by all creation recapitulated in Christ and lived by, with, and in Him (see recapitulation in christ).

The keen awareness that all men are called to union with Christ, and through Him to union with one another, obviously has some profound repercussions on all human activity but finds its most noble expression in the liturgical cult that by its very nature is social and communitary (see liturgy). For this precise reason the liturgy of the Church not only promotes but gives life to the union with those members of the Mystical Body who, having terminated their earthly existence, are now unfailingly incorporated in Christ and constitute in heavenly glory the richest part of the people of God. And if in virtue of these considerations one ought actively to live in union with all his heavenly brothers, it is none the less clear that this contact ought to take place first of all with canonized saints, that is, with those whom one knows with infallible certaintybased on the declaration of the supreme teaching authorityto be actually in heaven, particularly united to Christ and whoin virtue of miraclesare individually indicated by Him as especially worthy and qualified to be friends and intercessors.

Historical Perspective. If Holy Scripture does not speak explicitly of the intercession and invocation of saints, it offers a complete basis, especially in the clear Pauline teaching on the Mystical Body. In addition to this, in the Old and New Testaments frequent mention is made of impetratory and satisfactory intercession of the living for the living (Gn 18.2232; 20.7; Ex 32.11014; Nm 14.1320; Job 42.8; Acts 7.60; 12.5; Rom 15.30; Eph1.1519; 6.1820; 1 Tm 2.14; Jas 5.1618). Scripture also speaks of the intercession of the angels for men (Zec1.12; Job 33.2324; cf. Tb 12.12; 5.8; 8.3). In regard to the intercession of the dead for the livingabout which no mention is made in the most ancient books of the Old Testament, in which is found, as is well known, a very imperfect knowledge of the lot of the deadone has the familiar text of 2 Maccabees 15.1116. If in the New Testament writingsset down, one must remember, not as formal treatises but rather as casual piecesnothing on the subject is explicitly mentioned, one still has in the practice of the early Church an abundant harvest of evidence that demonstrates faith and conviction in the intercessory power of those who had "died in Christ." Such evidence (which is clearly of very great value since it reflects the mind of the early Christians, who lived entirely in the apostolic tradition and preaching) is seen in the many epitaphs, anaphorae, litanies, liturgical documents, acts of the martyrs, and in the frequent allusions encountered in Oriental, Greek, and Latin patristic literature. For example, there is the following inscription on a tomb: "Gentianus fidelis in pace, qui vixit annis XXI mens (e)s VIII dies XVI, et in orationi (bu)s tuis roges pro nobis, quia scimus te in Christo" (see Delehaye, Les Origines, ch. 4).

In the same source (100140) there are also many passages chosen from patristic literature on the invocation and intercession of the saints, and in first place one finds the classical texts of Hippolytus of Rome, Origen, Cyprian, Eusebius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Augustine, Jerome, and many others. After the great Roman persecutions, the cult originally reserved to those who had sacrificed their lives or suffered for Christ was gradually extended to include those who had consecrated themselves entirely to Christ as virgins, hermits, or cenobites, and at last to anyone who had led a life of heroic virtue.

The invocation of the saints as intercessors reached its greatest intensity in the Middle Ages, particularly in the veneration of patron saints that gave rise to local feast days and confraternities and affected customs and folklore. In the 16th century the heads of the Protestant reform rose in violent revolt against the Catholic doctrine concerning the intercession of the saints and their invocation. If these attacks were occasioned also by the exaggerations and abuses existing in this sector, it must be said that the true motive of these attacks is found in the Protestant concepts of the Incarnation, Redemption, justification, merit, and the Church, insofar as they are opposed to Catholic teaching. To counteract the wrong interpretations of the Protestants, the Council of Trent (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer, 1744, 1755, 182124, 1867) solemnly reaffirmed Catholic doctrine, pointing out its Christocentric nature. To avoid any misunderstanding or prejudice, it is therefore most important in ecumenical dialogue to explain, in ways ever more positive and in the light of what has been said, what the effects of incorporation in the Church are, for only then shall one contribute to making others understand that the authentic Catholic concept of saints, far from dimming the greatness of Christ, the fount of all grace and merit and sole mediator (see mediation), greatly contributes to its splendor, and that the invocation of the saints not only does not diminish but actually increases the worship (latria ) of God. This aspect has been brought out very clearly by Vatican Council II. Chapter 7 of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church contains a complete systematic exposition of Catholic teaching on the saints [Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 (1965) 5358].

See Also: intercession

Bibliography: p. sÉjournÉ, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350) 14.1:870978. a. p. frutaz, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 7:12732. h. delehaye, Les Origines du culte des martyrs (2d ed. Brussels 1933); Sanctus: Essai sur le culte des saints dans l'antiquité (Brussels 1927). r. lansemann, Die Heiligentage, besonders die Marien-, Apostelund Engeltage in der Reformationszeit (Göttingen 1939). p. molinari, I santie il loro culto (Rome 1962). k. rahner, "Die Kirche der Heiligen," Schriften zur Theologie (Einsiedeln 1954) 3:11126. j. b. walz, Die Fürbitte der Heiligen (Freiburg 1927). a. ebneter, "Der Heilige im Protestantismus," Orientierung 25 (1961) 21620; "Fürsprache und Anrufung," ibid. 27 (1963) 22226. j. pascher, "Die communio sanctorum als Grundefüge der katholischen Heiligenverehrung," Münchener theologische Zeitschrift 1 (1950) 111.

[p. molinari]