Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy teach that we should pray to Mary and the saints to invoke their help by asking them to appeal to God on our behalf. They believe that because the saints in heaven are without sin and closer to God than we are, their prayers are more effective than saints who dwell on earth. This belief was enshrined into Christian orthodoxy at the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787. One of the most popular expressions of prayer to Mary is seen in Saint Alphonsus Liguori’s The Glories of Mary. Because Liguori is a Doctor of the Church, his writings are considered a sure guide to Catholic doctrine.
But this practice of praying to departed saints and angels assigns to them many of the incommunicable attributes of God. Only God is omnipresent, omniscient, and above time. A finite creature by definition cannot receive, comprehend, and act on thousands of different prayers in dozens of languages from all over the world at the same moment in time. That is why one of the titles for God is “O you who hears prayer” (Ps 65:2) because only God by nature can hear all the prayers of the saints. To apply these attributes to anyone else besides God is to fall into practical polytheism. This is why the doctrine of theosis where the saints in heaven are viewed as gods by grace who transcend our human limitations is necessary in order to believe that the saints can hear our prayers.
The cult of the saints is essentially a continuation of the cult of pagan Rome with each saint responsible for one aspect of life for which prayer is made parallel to how each god in pagan Rome was invoked for help in their area of influence. Catholicism has religious shrines dedicated to individual saints parallel to the shrines that pagans have for their gods. The title pontifex maximus for the pope was originally the title for the Roman emperor as the head of the state religion of Rome. In contrast to this idolatrous superstition, the Bible forbids all attempts to communicate with the dead (Deut 18:11; Isa 8:19-20). There is only one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ (1 Tim 2:5). God alone is called the one who can perceive our thoughts from afar (1 Kgs 8:39; Ps 139:2). A mere creature cannot discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
One of the most popular verses in Scripture used in favor of addressing saints in prayer is Hebrews 12:1 which speaks of Christians being “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” This is interpreted to mean that the saints in heaven are watching us and therefore we can pray to them. But the “cloud of witnesses” is not a literal cloud or a literal group of people who are looking at us, but the historical testimonies of the faithful followers of Christ the author of Hebrews has been talking about in the immediate context. It is their testimonies of faith that metaphorically surround us which give us encouragement to run the race set before us. But their stories point us ultimately to Jesus, not to themselves. This argument is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Greek word translated as “witnesses” means. It is the word marturos which is where the word “martyr” would eventually come from. It does not refer to looking at or observing, but is a legal term to refer to someone who bears witness to the truthfulness of something in a court of law. They are not witnesses of us, but witnesses for Christ. They are those who bear testimony that God is faithful and is the rewarder of those who seek him through the stories of their lives.
Another popular verse used in favor of praying to departed saints is Revelation 5:8 where the church in heaven is pictured as offering up to God the prayers of the saints as incense. Therefore, it is argued that we should pray to the saints so that our requests might be made known to God. But this argument proves too much since it would not only prove that we should pray to the saints to have them deliver our prayers to God, but that the only way our prayers can be delivered to God is through the mediation of the saints in heaven on our behalf. That would mean we should never pray to God directly because our prayers only ascend to God in these visions through the mediation of saints and angels. The saints in heaven would then become indispensable aids to prayer through whom we must pray if we ever want God to recognize our prayers.
In Revelation 8:3, “all” of the prayers of the saints are offered up to God by the angel. If this verse is meant to teach us that we should pray to angels to have them take our requests to God, then that would mean we should never pray to saints or God directly but only to angels since “all” of the prayers of the saints are delivered to God by the angel which would contradict the argument based on Revelation 5:8. This interpretation would also mean that only those who pray to angels are Christians since the angel offers up “all” the prayers of the saints. It would then teach us that Christians must pray only to angels to have their prayers accepted by God since the angel is depicted as offering up to God the totality of the prayers of the saints on earth. But Jesus says in John 14:14, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” Jesus taught us to pray to God the Father directly (Matt 6:9). Instead, Roman Catholicism presents us with a Jesus who must be placated by Mary’s intercession to turn away his wrath. The imagery in Revelation is not meant to communicate that we are to pray to saints or angels, but to symbolize that our prayers to God are like incense in that they are pleasing to him. These are not prayers directed toward saints in heaven or angels, but to God alone.