The Communion of Saints

W. P. Bennett

A Short History of the Intercession of the Saints

If we look at the many beliefs that Catholics and most Protestants hold in common, it is surprising that so much attention is paid to those areas of faith where we disagree.  However, at least from a Catholic perspective, these areas are very important.  Teachings on the Eucharist, the role of Mary, and the intercession of the saints seem to be the biggest of these dividing issues. Catholics sometimes feel put on the defensive when asked about these issues and can become flustered, not knowing how to respond.  Today we will look at the historical teaching regarding saintly intercession and hopefully will grow in understanding of this teaching; gain confidence in this practice; and continue to pray for the intercession of the saints in heaven.

It wasn’t until the Council of Trent in 1545 that the teaching on saintly intercession was officially laid down. The Council declared that

...the saints who reign together with Christ offer up their own prayers to God for men. It is good and useful suppliantly to invoke them, and to have recourse to their prayers, aid, and help for obtaining benefits from God, through His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, Who alone is our Redeemer and Savior.”[1]  

Some may see this late date as problematic in establishing the validity of this teaching throughout history. However, the delay in making an official statement it is actually a good sign for us as Catholics. 

Often, the Catholic Church does not lay down teachings on a subject until those teachings become challenged.  For example, nowhere is it specifically taught that Jesus Christ was a man and not a woman.  This is simply because this has never been challenged.  If it were to be challenged, it would be defined as an explicit teaching; but that does not mean it was not believed before it was defined.  The same is true with regard to the Eucharist being the real presence of the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ.  This too was not specifically defined until 1545 (at the same Council—the Council of Trent), as it had not been challenged in any serious way until the Protestant Reformation. Thus we have the history of our tradition with us on saintly intercession.  The fact that the Catholic Church didn’t define this teaching until the 1500s suggests that it was a commonly held belief for 1500 years before being challenged.  But, is this really the case?  Did Church fathers really hold this view?  Does scripture really talk about it at all?  If we look at the implications of one Gospel passage along with some quotes from Church Fathers we can see that the practice was, indeed, in place for over 1500 years, and is still held as a valid belief today by Catholics.

In the Gospel of Luke we have the story of Lazarus and the rich man (16: 19-31).  This is not the Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead, but rather a fictional character in a parable that Jesus tells.  As a brief summary: the rich man always ignored Lazarus, a poor beggar, who would lie by his door begging. When men die, Lazarus goes to heaven and the rich man does not.  From hell the rich man asks Abraham if Lazarus could be sent to his family to warn them not to be like him.  The rich man and Abraham go back and forth about what will or will not cause people to repent on earth, but that is not the point I wish to make.  It is significant that Jesus chose a parable that involves an individual pleading from outside of heaven to one who is in heaven, asking them to perform some action for those on earth. Jesus’ audience does not question the scenario; and if Jesus is using this example in a parable it suggests that this belief was widely held.  That those in heaven could act on behalf of those living is simply assumed in Jesus’ story and posed no problem to his followers.

Moving from this point, we can look at the Church Fathers for further explanation of what Christians believed about saintly intercession in the years following Christ’s deathand leading up to the 1500s, when the teaching was explicitly defined.  One of the great teachers of the faith in the early centuries was Origen, who lived in the 3rd century A.D.  Although not a saint, his teachings are nonetheless looked upon with great respect for their clarity. Regarding saintly intercession, Origen wrote “But not the high priest [Christ] alone prays for those who pray sincerely, but also the angels . . . as also the souls of the saints who have already fallen asleep.”[2]  Here Origen very clearly lays out that the souls of the saints who have died (fallen asleep) pray for those who request their intercession. 

Later in the 3rd century A.D., Cyprian of Carthage stated “Let us remember one another in concord and unanimity. Let us on both sides [of death] always pray for one another. Let us relieve burdens and afflictions by mutual love, that if one of us, by the swiftness of divine condescension, shall go hence first, our love may continue in the presence of the Lord, and our prayers for our brethren and sisters not cease in the presence of the Father’s mercy.”[3]  Here, again, Cyprian is quite clear that we should not only pray for each other while we are alive but that this praying for each other will continue when we die and that we can pray for those who are alive when we die. 

There are many more examples of Church Fathers discussing saintly intercession, but I wish to mention just one more: St. Augustine of Hippo.  St. Augustine was prolific in his writing and wrote on almost every topic in theology. We can certainly expect that Augustine would write about saintly intercession if it were a practice during his time, which was during the late 300s and early 400s A.D.  He does write on this subject, and very clearly, when he writes: “[t]here is an ecclesiastical discipline, as the faithful know, when the names of the martyrs are read aloud in that place at the altar of God, where prayer is not offered for them. Prayer, however, is offered for the dead who are remembered. For it is wrong to pray for a martyr, to whose prayers we ought ourselves be commended.”[4]  Here St. Augustine clearly teachers us to commend our prayers to those who have died, requesting that they intercede on our behalf.  He will write a few years later that “[a]t the Lord’s table we do not commemorate martyrs in the same way that we do others who rest in peace so as to pray for them, but rather that they may pray for us that we may follow in their footsteps”[5].  Here, Augustine describes how, during Mass, we ask the martyrs to pray for us that we may follow them into heaven.  The Church Fathers could not be clearer or united on this topic.

So, today we can have the confidence that when we pray for the intercession of the saints we are following a tradition that some of our greatest saints followed and a practice that even Jesus used as an example in his parables.  May the saints in heaven continue to intercede for us here on earth that we may one day join them in the glory of heaven!


[1] Scannell, Thomas. "Intercession (Mediation)." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 29 Jan. 2013

[2] (Prayer 11 [A.D. 233])

[3] (Letters 56[60]:5 [A.D. 253])

[4] (Sermons 159:1 [A.D. 411])

[5] (Homilies on John 84 [A.D. 416])