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Angela Tilby: Why not ask the saints for their support?

01 November 2019


Pope Benedict XVI during the mass to beatify Cardinal Newman in Birmingham, on 19 September 2010

Pope Benedict XVI during the mass to beatify Cardinal Newman in Birmingham, on 19 September 2010

AFTER the canonisation of Cardinal Newman (News, 18 October), there were some posts on Twitter which expressed outrage at the notion that Roman Catholics might now be praying “to” the Cardinal. The tone of the tweets was scornful, even contemptuous. Those who sent them seemed unaware of the fact that some RCs had been asking for Newman’s prayers even before he was declared a saint; the miracles ascribed to his intercession, which formed part of the case for his canonisation, were judged to have occurred in answer to prayer.

Article XXII of the Thirty-Nine Articles dismisses the “Romanish Doctrine” of its time concerning “invocation of saints”, as well as “Purgatory, Par­dons, Wor­ship­ping, and Adora­tion, as well of Images as of Reliques” as a “fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God”. So, the tweeting Protestants have a case.

The logic of Article XXII is not as tight as it might appear, however. An examination of scripture suggests that all Christians are called to be saints by our baptism. Holiness is communicated by God to his people. So far, so Protestant.

But what scripture also implies is that the bonds of communion go beyond this earthly life, and that, even while we struggle here below, we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses”, the heroes of former ages who have suffered and died for the faith. We believe in the communion of saints. Indeed, the 12th chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews suggests that their perfection is incomplete without us. We are to think of the saints who have gone before us as our friends and supporters, cheering us on as we “run with perseverance the race that is set before us”.

If this is true, then it can be hardly be forbidden for us to ask for their support, just as we might ask our living friends for their prayers. We are not really praying “to” the saints, but with them. Last Sunday, I watched as 20,000 contestants turned the corner opposite Portsmouth Cathedral as they took part in the Great South Run; our encouragement was met with waves and appreciation.

The Reformers had their reasons for their polemic against the cult of saints. They were outraged by the commercialisation of piety and the manipulation of gullible souls. But, in our irreligious times, their outrage seems strangely irrelevant. It is our cynicism which needs conversion, not our gullibility. I have never felt offended by praying the Litany of the Saints, as I have often done in Roman and Anglo-Catholic churches. It is just a recognition that the Church Militant here on earth has its counterpart, the Church Triumphant in heaven, and, in Christ, we are all one.

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