One of my goals for this blog is to talk about the Catholic faith–not only how it is lived out in my own experience, but also the actual teachings of the Church, in all of their complexity, difficulty, and beauty. Once a week, I’ll post an edition of “Cozy Catholic CCD,” where I’ll discuss one aspect of the faith–and I will try to do it in a way that is accessible, interesting, and–of course!–in line with the Magisterium. But I am not a professional theologian, so please let me know if you think I have something wrong!
For those not familiar with the term “CCD,” it’s the name of the program that many Catholic parishes run to teach the faith to children. Wikipedia tells me that it stands for “Confraternity of Christian Doctrine,” but I had to look that up because everyone always just *knows* what you mean by CCD, so no one ever uses the full name. Plus, the whole phrase is kind of a mouthful, right? I went to CCD as a kid myself, but the actual education I received there was… spotty. Lots of “Jesus loves you,” but not a lot of what else the Church believes. I’ve had to do a lot more reading to learn the rest of it–so I’m hoping to share some of the Truth with you!
Ready? Here we go. Cozy Catholic CCD, first edition.
It’s November! The month of gratitude, turkey, and moldy pumpkins slowly rotting on front porches. And for Catholics, since the month opens with All Saints Day and All Souls Day, it’s also a good time to think about the saints.
In high school, I had a friend who asked me what the deal was with Catholic Saints. For his Protestant church, “saint” just meant a person in heaven, but the Catholic Church seemed to have a more specific list. I didn’t know how to answer him at the time, but it turns out that really, the Catholic definition is the same! Everyone in heaven is a saint.
The saints in heaven experience the Beatific Vision–they see God face to face, and give him praise and glory. They also intercede (pray to God for us) for living people, to help us do God’s will and gain salvation ourselves. That is why we pray to the saints: we are asking them to intercede for us. Even when we phrase things more directly, like, “St. Anthony, please help me find my cell phone!”, what we mean is, “St. Anthony, please ask God to help me find my cell phone!” Just as we ask our friends here on Earth to pray for us, we can ask our friends in Heaven–and we know they are already on God’s good side, so we hope their requests are especially effective!
But wait!” you say. “We are still here among the living. How can we know who is in Heaven, and who isn’t?”
That is a tricky question. After all, only God knows people’s souls and minds well enough to determine their eternal destination. However, the Church has a process of identifying some exceptionally holy people who we can say with certainty that they are saints. This is the process of canonization.
To be canonized, a person must not only have lived an exemplary life of virtue and service during their time on Earth, but there also has to be strong evidence of a miracle happening through their intercession after they died. If God is granting miracles because someone prayed to that person… well, that’s pretty strong evidence that they’re in Heaven, huh? And the Vatican is tough–they will look for any other explanation before accepting a miracle as legit. (In fact, the phrase, “devil’s advocate” originates from the fact that the Church made it someone’s official job when investigating miracles to find any possible reason for the event other than a miraculous intervention. To advocate for a non-heavenly explanation.)
There are probably many, many times more actual saints than just the ones the Church has officially identified, but the canonized Saints are the ones we can be sure of. They are the best of the best, and the people we should most try to emulate in our own lives. We do not worship the saints themselves; we admire them, we try to follow their example of holy living, and we ask them for help.
So those are the basics. Saints are people in heaven. We ask them to pray for us, and we are inspired by their example. The Church identifies people as saints through the process of canonization.
But here are two of my favorite ideas about the saints.
The first is the ENORMOUS variety among the ranks of the saints. Some saints were wealthy, some were beggars. Some were meek, some were bold. Among their ranks are men, women, children, kings, martyrs, comics, and professors. The saints make it clear that there is no one, single path to holiness. God loves our individuality, our differing personalities (after all, He created them!)–and He wants us to use our own unique gifts to draw the world closer to Him. There is freedom in being holy. God calls you to be the best version of yourself, not to turn into someone else. And no matter your skills and interests, there is a saint with whom you can identify, and by whom you can be inspired to greater holiness.
So that’s my first favorite thing. My second favorite idea is related to the mechanics, if we can call it that, of how it works that we pray to the saints. You might wonder, how do they hear our prayers? After all, they’re still only human in Heaven. They don’t have ESP.
The way they receive our requests is through the Beatific Vision. As they contemplate God in the Beatific Vision, God gives them the knowledge that we on Earth are praying to them. At first glance, this might strike you as awfully inefficient. After all, we pray to the saints for their intercession to God for us… but God is the one informing them of our prayers in the first place?!
ME: St. Therese, please help me be patient.
GOD: Hey Therese, my beloved little flower, Jess needs some patience and she’s asking for your help.
St. THERESE: Please God, grant Jess patience in her time of need!
GOD: You got it!
Yup. The prayers start with us, go to God, God sends them to the relevant saint, and the saint sends the intention back to God. And it is inefficient! But that’s because God is more interested in extravagance than efficiency.
If God wanted to be truly, perfectly, efficient, He wouldn’t have created anything. He is perfectly whole all by Himself. He doesn’t need us for any reason. He couldn’t even be lonely by Himself, because–being a Trinity of three persons–He’s already got community baked right into His essence. The very fact that we exist at all shows that God is extravagant in His love, and that He delights in us and in sharing creation with us.
So God doesn’t NEED us to do anything. But because He loves us so much, He wants to share with us His delight of participating in creation and contributing to the salvation of the world. So He has entrusted us with jobs, and these jobs are given real importance. One is praying for each other, to come together as the Body of Christ to help each other get to Heaven together. And that vital task–lucky us!–continues in Heaven as well as on Earth.