God and the Saints
Patrick Breen, O.Carm.
Roman Catholics are part of the Christian community and are known as ‘Christians’ because they follow Jesus Christ. For Catholics, Jesus Christ is more than just a man who lived as one of us 2,000 years ago, though this is an essential part of who he is for us. Jesus Christ is also God.
The whole of creation is the work of God, the supreme being. For Catholics, there is only one God which we affirm in Church every Sunday in the opening line of the Creed – “We believe in one God.” For us, God is one being but three persons – God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. This may appear to contradictory but God is still one being. It is impossible for humans to ever fully explain the Trinity but the example of the shamrock helps to illustrate. The great Apostle of Ireland, St Patrick (c 389-461AD) used a shamrock to explain the Trinity. He took a three leaf clover, which is called a shamrock in Ireland, and said that it is a shamrock because it has three leaves, no more no less, and while each leaf is individual it is still part of the one plant called a shamrock. With the Trinity, the three persons make up the one being who is our Creator. All three persons are essential and the common bond between them is love.
God the Father is the first person of the Blessed Trinity and is the creator of all there is. Throughout the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, we see God the Father speak to his people through Moses and the prophets, through whom he gave us the Ten Commandments. God made covenants with the people but the people were not always faithful to their God. Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity. God the Son came among us as a man to bring the Good News to us. He taught us about the kingdom and of the infinite love of God for his creation. Christ gave his life and died upon the cross for us. Having died he was raised to life by the Father and in his rising we too have been made righteousness in the eyes of God and the immortality of our souls has been restored. Following his resurrection, God the Son returned to his heavenly kingdom but in leaving he sent the third person of the Trinity to be with us. God the Holy Spirit is our advocate before God and is also our guide and strength on the path to leads to eternal life. All three persons of the Trinity have taken an active part in the salvation of humankind and each in a different way. But all three are still one.
Catholics worship one God who is the centre of our lives and it is to him that we direct our prayers and liturgies. Catholics also pray to saints, which sometimes gives rise to the notion that they have more than one god. Throughout history the Churches of the East and West (the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox) have canonized those men and women who have been outstanding in holiness, whose lives have been an example for others to follow, who were martyred or whose teaching is of particular significance. When one is canonized it is the Church’s way of recognizing the holiness of this person and also of saying that this person is in heaven and in the presence of God. Being in the presence of God, this person is able to intercede for others in a very special way.
Catholics pray to the saints not because they see saints as gods but as intercessors for them before the seat of God. They pray to the saints to intercede on their behalf for what they need. Part of the canonization process requires that two miracles occur and be attributed to the person being canonized. If a miracle does happen it shows that God has answered the request made through this particular person who intercedes for us before him. It does not say that the person in question worked the miracle but that it occurred through their intercession.
The Catholic Church uses the term ‘the Communion of Saints’ to refer to all those who dwell in God’s presence. Not everyone who dies is canonized or declared a saint but all those who enter heaven are part of the communion of saints in heaven. We pray to them to intercede for us before God.
In many places there are statues, images and relics of the saints. These we venerate – we do not worship them – in that they help to remind us of the God’s goodness and his eternal love for us. These images and relics remind us of the example and teaching of the saint in question and inspire us to conversion and a better way of living. On their feast days we venerate them in a special way but they do not replace God for us. He is God and there is no other. The saints intercede for us and are beacons or markers for us along the path to God.