Here is an interesting post by an Episcopal priest on the Pope’s funeral.
Another moment that really impressed me was the Litany Of The Saints at the very end of the mass. In the litany a long list of saints was read out with the crowd responding in Latin “Pray For Us.” The tune was very beautiful and the cantor exquisite and the melodic response of thousands of voices, “Pray For Us” seemed to me to distill the longing of the human heart to the purest essence. Again the setting made something familiar come to life.
The cult of saints is one of the elements in Roman Catholic religion with which Protestants are most uncomfortable. The practice of seeking the intercession of the saints surely can lead to misunderstandings that border on the worst kind of magical religion and come very near to polytheism. This is not the official theology. I am catholic minded enough to accept the official theology which is that seeking the intercession of the saints is nothing more than asking friends to pray for us. It is just that these friends happen to be on the other side of death praising God in the church triumphant. I have enough Reformation antibodies in my theological blood stream to be allergic to the practice and such litanies are not part of my personal piety. They make me uncomfortable. Though when the priest that sponsored for ordination died I found myself without thinking asking him to intercede for me that I might be as faithful as he was. But what does this mean? Is there not a danger of losing track of Jesus Christ as the one and only mediator?
As this long list of saints was being read off in St. Peter’s square to the millions gathered there and the millions watching, each well known name followed by the deeply echoing petition, “Pray For Us,” the penny dropped for me that these people being mentioned whose prayers were being beseeched with great feeling were people whose names and histories were intimately known. Many of them had been martyred for the faith in Rome and were buried beneath the feet of the crowd. They were real people whose lives of holiness were well known who left friends and companions behind, who by their courage and witness had kept the faith alive in their time. Oh, Perpetua, Felicitas, Caspar, Vincentia and on and on. I wish I could call to mind all the names. But it was not a plea for magical people with magical powers to perform some wonder unrelated to our own relationship to Christ. It was a plea to friends known for their faithfulness, for their lives of holiness and costly sacrifice, friends not absent but nearby, underfoot in one sense, yet united to us in a living communion, to be in solidarity with us and beseech our only mediator and saviour to help us in our time to keep the faith as they have. It need not be a slip into magical religion but the legitimate cry of the human heart to friends in the faith whose faith strengthens us in a moment of weakness and need, to pray for us. How natural to say “John Paul II, pray for us.”
I especially enjoyed the part about "Reformation antibodies in my theological blood stream" of which I can partly relate to. Some devotional practices can still cause some of my old atheist antibodies to react and to release chemical shouts of "Beware superstition!". I can intellectually accept certain devotional practices, but old allergic reactions can step in from fully engaging in them without feeling a little uncomfortable. I can watch my wife touch the sandals of Jesus on the Pieta in our Church and can both want to follow her example and at the same time feel a little bit queasy about it. Having an intellectual belief in something is not the same thing as to be totally down with it. I have grown more comfortable with time asking the intercession of the saints, but it is still like first learning to ride a bicycle where you have to concentrate on what you are doing to keep moving along. Though I have found asking Pope John Paul II to pray for me very comfortable. I hope I am not presumptuous in being on a first name basis with him who I simply address as Karol. I have a feeling he doesn’t mind and besides "Pope John Paul II the Great" is a mouthful.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the response in this particular Litany was “Ora (orate) pro eo”–“pray for him”. Since we cannot read minds and hearts, Holy Church bids us to pray FOR those who have died. It is far better to do what is not needed than to not do what is needed! Thanks for the lovely post–I particularly liked the thought of friends underfoot.
Opps! What a howler. Put it down to a combination of being deaf as a haddock and creaky Latin. The basic point I hope stands that the practice of asking the saints for intercession becomes much more understandable when we perceive them as brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, the communion of all the faithful. Something about naming those names in the place where the lived and gave their costly witness made the whole thing seem not “religious” or merely formal but full of human life and feeling and deep appreciation for the contagious faith of others.
I actually loved your comment about being queasy about touching the sandals on the pieta like your wife does. Our 21-month daughter gives the pieta statue in church kisses (Jesus needs kisses on his ow-ies).
Thanks for the heads up on the Latin. Wathching the funeral, I was sure it wasn’t “nobis” and figured it was “him”, but I hadn’t gotten around to looking it up.
Thanks for this post. I always try to find better ways to illustrate our relationship to saints to my protestant friends, and I think this sums it up nicely.
I had to overcome a few “antibodies” of my own, when swimming the Tiber.
My explanation of intercession goes like this:
When Adam and Eve were in the garden, they could see and hear God as they saw and heard each other. After their expulsion, the easy communication between those in time and those in eternity was broken, and people on earth only see or hear those in Heaven in extraordinary circumstances. When one is in Heaven, this partial disability of the intellect is done away, as all evils are done away in Heaven, and our friends in Heaven can hear and see us and act on our behalf. If a Protestant had some ill or anxiety he might very likely ask me to intercede for him with God, that is, to pray for him. If that’s so, why should I hesitate to ask the intercession of someone who is actually with God right this minute, and able to ask Him face to face to help me?