How Can the Saints Hear and Answer Our Prayers?

By Dr. Robert Stackpole

In honor of All Saints' Day on Nov. 1, let's take a look at the wonderful gift God gives us in the form of the saints.

One of the blessings in life that God has given me is that I get to teach theology to undergraduates. One of our readers sent me a question on the saints that made me head straight for my undergrad class lecture notes. A man named Peter wrote:

I have a question about intercessory prayer. I can understand how God can hear and respond to millions of prayers said at the exact same time, because He is omniscient. But how can the Blessed Mother and the Saints, like St. Faustina, deal with it? They are human, like us, but in heaven rather than on earth. The blessed Mother especially, because she is in heaven body and soul. It just seems impossible to me for the saints to be able to hear and respond to every single intercessory prayer.

To answer your good question, Peter, we need to divide it into two parts:

(1) Can the saints in Heaven actually hear and respond to our prayers - that is, what has God revealed about this in Scripture and Sacred Tradition?

There are a number of Scripture passages which directly or indirectly relate to our first question:

  • Hebrews 11:1-12:1 finishes, "Seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses [in other words, the heroes and martyrs of the faith from ages past], let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us." Thus, the heroes and martyrs are a good example for us, and surround us like spectators at a running race - therefore, obviously, they know about us and can see our struggles from heaven.
  • James 5:16-18: 'The prayer of the good man has powerful effect." In other words, the most powerful intercessors in the Church are those most advanced in holiness. And who is more advanced in holiness than a soul who is already fully sanctified and in heaven?
  • Revelation 5:8; 8:3-4: "In heaven the elders and angels offer up the prayers of the saints [on earth] as incense before the throne of God." In this passage it is important to note that the New Testament uses the word "saint" of every baptized Christian, not because we are all perfectly holy, but because we have all at least received the gift of the Holy Spirit. So this passage implies that the angels and elders (holy Christian leaders now in Heaven) hear the prayers of every Christian on earth, and join their prayer now with ours.

In short, put these passages together, and they certainly imply that the saints in Heaven know of our struggles on earth and of our prayers, and join their powerful intercessory prayers with ours.

Prayers joined
In the early tradition of the Church, the early liturgies almost all have passages which imply that the saints join their prayers with ours, and that ours are joined with theirs. Some examples of these early liturgical prayers are included in the modern rite of the Eucharist: "Now with angels and archangels, and the whole company of heaven, we sing the unending hymn of your praise ..." (Preface of the Baptism of the Lord). There are invocations of the martyrs inscribed in the catacombs from the time of the late 2nd century onward, and the first prayer directly addressed to the Blessed Virgin Mary, of which we have record, was written in the early 3rd century.

By the 4th century the invocation of the angels and saints is universally practiced in the Church, and there is no evidence of any significant division or dispute about it at any stage of this development. Catholic theologians see this consensus as a sign of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church, guiding the Christian people to perceive ever more clearly their relationship in the Body of Christ with the saints who have gone before us into Heaven.

The doctrine of the invocation of the angels and saints also fits well with the wider pattern of the Christian Faith. Our growth in faith and holiness is aided by the intercession of other members of the Body of Christ (Eph 6:18; 1 Thess 3:11-13; 1 Tim 2:1-4), and the Church on earth and in heaven are evidently united in some way in Christ (Heb 12:22-24). It is hard to see how asking the angels and saints to pray for us can be misconstrued as "idolatry" (the accusation made by some Evangelicals), while asking one's Christian family members and friends for their prayers is not.

Both acts seem to be based on similar principles of charity and intercessory prayer. Idolatry would only occur if one believed that a saint or angel would give you something that our Lord would not (as if praying to an alternate God); but authentic prayers to the angels and saints are no more than requests made to them to pray for us to Him! The final address is still the same, as in the "Hail Mary": "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death."

Catholic defenders of the invocation of the angels and saints, therefore, would argue that there is a cumulative case for this doctrine, which combines the implications of Scripture, the early Tradition of the Church, and how it all fits into the wider pattern of the Catholic Faith. This makes it "morally certain" (i.e., true beyond a reasonable doubt) that we can indeed ask the angels and saints for their prayers, and that they can hear us and respond to us by praying for us. Add to that the fact that the Ecumenical Councils and Popes have always strongly endorsed this doctrine, and we can go beyond mere moral certainty: we can have "the certainty of faith" that this truth has been revealed to us by God.

(2) How can the saints in Heaven manage to hear and respond to our prayers, since they are only human, even in Heaven?

The second part of your question is more difficult, Peter, only because it is an attempt to delve into mysteries of heaven which God has not fully revealed to the Church. But that does not mean we can't get at least close to an answer. Catechism entry 1028 tells us some important things about the souls in Heaven:

Because of his transcendence, God cannot be seen as he is, unless he himself opens up his mystery to man's immediate contemplation and gives him the capacity for it. The Church calls this contemplation of God in his heavenly glory "the beatific vision."

Indeed, the Scriptures tell us over and over that in heaven we shall "see" God with our mind and heart, and contemplate God with the eyes of the soul (so to speak) in a new and glorious way: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Mt 5:8); "Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face" (1 Cor 13:12); "We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as he is" (1 Jn 3:2).

"As He is"
Think of it this way: to see God "as He is," "face to face," and to "contemplate" God in all His heavenly glory must be an indescribable experience, but it is the wonderful destiny He has in store for all of us who love and trust Him. We cannot fully understand what that means, from this side of Heaven. But we know one thing for sure: to see and know and contemplate God in Heaven must include to see and know and contemplate all that God loves - for how could you really see and know God "as He is" without seeing everything He loves, and without seeing how He loves everything? For "God is love" (1 Jn 4:8).

And one of the things God loves best of all is human beings, the creatures He made in His own image, and for whom He gave His life on the Cross. The saints in Heaven, therefore, must surely see and know all about us on earth, because they see us reflected in the mind and heart of the God who loves us, whom they behold face to face.. The saints in heaven know us because they know all about God's love for us, and - being filled with His love for us - they love us too.

So, the next time you feel like asking Our Blessed Mother, or St. Faustina, or any saint to pray for you, go right ahead! They are already overflowing with God's love for you, and they just cannot wait to be asked to help you with their prayers.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy and author of Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press).


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