Wednesday, September 25, 2019 - Updated: 2:17 pm
QUESTION: In the seats and in the back of churches, I often see small papers and leaflets telling of the “unfailing help” of a particular saint. A lot of times the papers say that one must say certain prayers faithfully or a certain number of prayers over so many days. Somehow these things make me uncomfortable, but I don’t want to be a complete skeptic.
ANSWER: One of the admirable aspects of our Catholic faith is its authentic devotion to the saints. The church fosters the veneration of the saints so that we might see in their lives examples of how the light of Christ might shine in our own lives. The veneration of the saints is rooted in belief in the mystical body of Christ. The mystical body encompasses Christ and the saints in heaven, those awaiting entrance into heaven, as well as believers on earth. Through this mystical body of Christ, we give praise and worship to the Father. As we live and worship as the mystical body, we feel a closeness to the saints who have lived heroic lives and are now with the Lord in glory.
One of the chief criticisms of the Catholic Church by Martin Luther was that it had become superstitious and knew nothing of true faith or the word of God. The Catholic Church has responded well to such criticism and has certainly come a long way since the days of Luther, but not all Catholics have made the journey.
One of the least appealing aspects of the Catholic faith is the way in which some have turned authentic devotion to the saints into forms of superstition that obscure our faith and give scandal to others. If these slips of paper are meant to inspire faith, unfortunately at times they do the opposite.
Prayer to the saints is certainly appropriate. However, “the conditions” associated with some such prayers (e.g. “nine times” or “nine days”) could hardly be rules imposed by God. Such practices reflect more of the compulsion and superstition of chain letters rather than authentic Christian prayer.
Also, one has to wonder about the “unfailing” part. What is the nature of prayer that is a success or a failure? If one prays for physical healing only to be cured of bitterness and opened to God’s will, is that prayer a failure?
Authentic Christian prayer is one that never makes demands on God. Christian prayer rests upon our relationship with God as the one who knows our needs. We pray to make known our dependence and dispose ourselves to God’s actions on our behalf. To demand things of God the way we might do to our neighbors is to misunderstand the relationship and to set ourselves up for terrible disappointments and even unnecessary crises of faith.
Our lives rest with a God of great love and providence who does not play games with us. Our response should be one of confidence and faith, not superstition and the counting of days and slips of paper. Given the fact that Jesus promises heaven to those who give drink to the thirsty and food to the hungry, our prayer should lead us to action on behalf of those in need.
Father Bober is administrator of the grouping that includes St. Kilian in Adams/Cranberry townships and Holy Sepulcher in Glade Mills.