[Sermon given at St Francis Xavier Catholic Church, Malacca, Malaysia. I’ve been giving a special emphasis in this ‘Year of Faith’ to preaching on the Catechism from cover to cover, and so even though this weekend I am 9,000 miles from my parish, I’d like to continue my cycle of reflections on the Catechism. We have reached Part IV of the Catechism, the part devoted to Prayer.]
Today, the 8th September, is the feast of the Birthday of Our Lady, and whilst the Sunday liturgy (23rd Sunday) takes precedence over the feast, nevertheless we can still remember her feastday with affection today. Prayer to the Saints like Our Lady may well be poorly understood by our non-Catholic brothers and sisters. Surely (they might say), only God is the true God; only God can be prayed to? Yes, this is true … Only God is the Lord. We do not treat the saints in any way as gods and goddesses, or as replacements for God, or with the honour due to God alone. This has to be clear.
Saints are men and women like you or me, human beings, creatures, originally sinners (except in Our Lady’s case), who have become saints through a holiness of life. They show us it is possible to live a good, holy, Christian life, winning through the exile and challenges of this world and gaining the glory of heaven. But we do not confuse the saints in glory for God whose glory heaven itself is.
So, when we say we pray ‘to’ the saints, what is it, in fact, that we mean? In what way does this differ from prayer ‘to’ God? Well, when we pray ‘to’ the saints, what we really mean is that we ask them to pray ‘for’ us. We ask for their prayers; we ask for their intercession. Let me quote to you a paragraph of the Catechism:
2683 The witnesses who have preceded us into the kingdom, especially those whom the Church recognizes as saints, share in the living tradition of prayer by the example of their lives, the transmission of their writings, and their prayer today. They contemplate God, praise him and constantly care for those whom they have left on earth. When they entered into the joy of their Master, they were “put in charge of many things.” Their intercession is their most exalted service to God’s plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world.
— i.e. we ask them to pray for us, from their place in heaven.
So, why? Why do we do this? Why do we ask their prayers. Why not just ask God? Well, if you think about it, it is profoundly human to pray together; that’s what the Church is. Saints are the “Church triumphant”: the Church in heaven, our brothers and sisters in glory. Is we are in need, are we not likely to ask someone else to pray for us? Yes, surely we are. And, are we not more likely to ask someone to pray for us whom we consider is a person close to God, a person of prayer? Yes, I’m sure we are. The clear and logical extension of this attitude, then, is to invoke the prayers of the saints — the most holy, most blessed of our race, who are already with God in heaven.
In heaven, Our Lady has the highest place amongst the saints; we invoke her as ‘Queen of Heaven.’ She is the greatest of saints not because we propose her to be, but because God chose her to be! She is God’s choice, not ours, and we cannot un-choose her! She is ‘Mother of God,’ chosen of all women in all history, by God, to bear the incarnate Son, Jesus. Our Lady is the ‘Immaculate Conception,’ free of all sin. She was assumed into heaven body and soul, and has made numerous apparitions over the centuries in different parts of the world. No wonder, then, we celebrate her feasts (like today) and invoke her most powerful prayers. Think, for example, of the event at Cana, at the wedding feast: her intercession with Jesus at a time of need. God has placed her there, in heaven, as our Queen and Mother. We need a mother’s love; in the Church we need a Mother’s feminine, delicate, interceding touch.
If we take the ‘Hail Mary’ prayer, then it all becomes clear. The first phrases of the prayer are from Sacred Scripture: greetings and praise from God (via the Angel Gabriel), “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee”; and then from Elizabeth, “Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” The ‘Hail Mary’ prayer is clearly rooted in Scripture. Mary is designated the daughter of Jerusalem, the flower of Israel, ready to receive the Saviour. The second part of the ‘Hail Mary,’ then, is our prayer — our request for prayer — “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us, sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” There it is, clear on the page: “pray for us.”
The key to prayer to Our Lady and the Saints is that they pray for us in all our needs and necessities. They are not plaster-cast statues immune from the real world. They have lived our life! They know just what it means to struggle; and they also know what it means to win — to win through to heaven, by God’s grace.
God has given us the Church and He has given us the fellowship (the communion’) of the Saints. Let us not neglect them — let us be their friends and companions here on earth, in order that we might more completely and perfectly be their companions one day in heaven. On the feast of her birth, we ask Our Lady’s prayers — especially for Syria in this current, sad, crisis, and we invoke also the prayers of St Ephraim and all the saints of Syria for that land where the Church — for example in Antioch — had many of its beginnings. Our Lady and All the Saints, pray for us!