October 28, 2004

Did the Saints Fall From Favor
After Vatican II?

by Friar Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

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Vatican II affirms devotion to the saints
The popularity of saints in our day
Asking the saints for favors is a commendable practice
A prayer for peace


The coming week is a big one for Catholics. Sunday is All Hallows Eve (Halloween), which is the eve of All Saints Day, November 1. The next day is All Souls Day. You can visit our All Hallows Eve and All Saints features for more on this.

I’d like to focus this column on the question from our headline: Did the saints fall from favor after Vatican II? Most Catholics would agree, I think, that at least in some sectors of the Church devotion to the saints fell in popularity in the years following Vatican II (1962-1965).

At the same time, I donít think it’s fair to conclude that the Second Vatican Council encouraged the faithful to abandon the popular practice of prayer and devotion to the saints. It was more a matter of getting our priorities straight. The Council was reminding us, for example, that the central focus of the Church’s prayer life and worship is the Eucharist. The Eucharist is not just one of several equal activities or devotions in the Church. It is the very source and summit of our Christian life.

Some churches built after the Council went to great lengths to arrange that everything should focus on the altar where the eucharistic celebration takes place. In some churches, statues of the saints were removed, or at least their number was greatly reduced. Vatican II gave no orders to remove images of the saints. In its Constitution on the Liturgy (#125), however, it gave this instruction: “The practice of placing sacred images in churches for people to venerate is to be maintained. Nevertheless they should be restricted in number and their relative positions should reflect right order, lest they cause confusion among the Christian people, or foster devotion of doubtful orthodoxy.”

There was no direct intention or policy on the part of the Church to lead people away from prayer or devotion to the saints. In trying to place a healthy emphasis on the centrality of Jesus and good liturgy, however, some of the Council’s instructions may have led indirectly to some lessening of attention paid to the saints, including even Mary, at least in some regions and cultural settings.

Vatican II affirms devotions to the saints

Council documents clearly encourage the faithful to look with admiration upon Mary and the saints, to imitate them in our journey to God and to seek their intercession. In the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (#50), the Pope and the bishops tell us: “When we look upon the lives of those women and men who have faithfully followed Christ we are inspired anew to seek the city which is to come, while at the same time we are taught about the safest path by which…we will be able to arrive at perfect union with Christ, which is holiness.

“…It is most fitting, therefore, that we love those friends and coheirs of Jesus Christ who are also our sisters and brothers and outstanding benefactors, and that we give due thanks for them, humbly invoking them, and having recourse to their prayers, their aid and help in obtaining from God through his Son, Jesus Christ,…the benefits we need.”

From these and other teachings, it is clear that Vatican II has not for a moment abandoned the Church’s belief in the communion of saints, whose importance we profess in the Apostle’s Creed. Part of that communion, of course, is comprised of the holy men and women who have gone before us and now share in life of the risen Christ.

The popularity of saints in our day

At St. Anthony Messenger Press—the home of St. Anthony Messenger magazine, this e-newsletter and many other publications—we see unmistakable evidence of the ongoing popularity of the saints of the Church. We know from the response of our readers and buyers, as well as from our Web-site visitors, that books and articles and online features about the saints have high appeal for Christians today.

Yes, we know that Jesus Christ—together with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit—must be the center of our focus and longing and spirituality. Yes, we know that Jesus is both human and divine, and that because of his humanity we can relate to him in a very special way—and we do. But we also need other flesh-and-blood human companions (who, like us, are not endowed with a divine nature) to show us how to imitate and embrace Christ and his kind of holiness and union with God. I think it’s this need that helps explain the popularity of saints during all ages of the Church’s history. We need human models, alive in the Spirit, who embody in their lives the one perfect model, Jesus Christ, the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).

Asking the saints for favors
is a commendable practice

And what about the practice of praying to the saints or asking their intercession for our personal or communal needs? Is it okay to pray for healing for ourselves or others, or to seek solutions through them for our problems or for those of our families and so forth? Well, I believe it was clear in the Vatican II document quoted above that we are encouraged to call upon the saints and ask their aid in interceding before God for the things we need.

I once interviewed an outstanding Episcopalian artist for an article I was preparing for St. Anthony Messenger magazine. This Dallas-based painter and sculptor has gained national notice and success in creating artworks of well-known Christian saints, a number of which were commissioned by Roman Catholic parishes or dioceses. Knowing that some outside the Roman Catholic community question the practice among Catholics of praying to the saints, I asked him if he personally believed in praying to the saints. Without blinking an eye, he replied: “We often ask our friends who are still alive on this earth to pray for us. Why shouldn’t we ask our good brothers and sisters who have died and are in the presence of God to pray for us?” I was greatly encouraged by the words and outlook of this devout Christian artist.

A prayer for peace

As we celebrate the feast of All Saints, may we find increased hope in the friendship and loving support we share with the vast community of saints who have lived and struggled before us. At this moment when the world desperately needs peace, we ask the great multitude of saints to intercede with us before our loving God for this great gift, which the world by itself cannot achieve.

With God’s decisive help through the intercession of the saints, may our world be set free from war, violence and terrorism. May the God of peace enlighten those of us preparing to vote that we may choose the best possible leaders to find the way out of this nightmare of bloodshed and hate as well as other forms of insensitivity toward human life. And, with God’s help, may we all work together to bring about a more peaceful and loving world. Amen.

AmericanCatholic.org Features
All Hallows Eve
All Saints and All Souls

Friar Jim’s Inbox

Readers respond to Friar Jim’s “What Are the Seven Sacraments?”

Dear Friar Jim: I was intrigued by you saying that in the sacraments, we meet Jesus. It makes them much more personal than seeing them as simply an external religious ritual. Frank

Dear Frank: To realize that Jesus not only gave the sacraments but actually gave himself with each sacrament (especially in the Eucharist) reminds us that everything about our faith is based on relationship with God. In the case of the sacraments it’s with Jesus himself. The rituals are visible signs that we see with our bodily eyes. What Jesus actually does in the sacraments is what we see with the eyes of faith. Friar Jim

Dear Friar Jim: I read in your newsletter in your description of the sacraments that reconciliation, anointing of the sick and marriage can all be repeated. Please clarify to me: the Catholic Church does not support re-marriage in all cases, unless the marriage has been annulled and/or the spouse is widowed. Is this correct? It seems confusing to say that the sacrament of marriage can be repeated, when I was under the impression that this was not encouraged. Edwina

Dear Edwina: Sorry for the confusion. I meant of course that to repeat marriage, the person MUST be free to marry either because of the death of the spouse or by reason of an annulment of the first marriage. When this is true, the Church surely supports those who wish to remarry. Friar Jim


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