The Saints, and What it Means to Pray

One thing that separates most Protestants from Catholics (and Orthodox) is the Catholic and Orthodox churches believe in the “communion of the saints,” and this communion is not broken by death but rather is perfected.  As a result, we pray to the saints and request their help with our many needs in this life.  This practice is often misunderstood by Protestants, or even if understood correctly can lead to many objections because they believe the practice is not Biblical.  Over the next few posts I will be looking at these objections and why as Catholics we believe correctly understood, the saints are indeed active in interceding for us, and invoking the saints is a very ancient and Biblical practice. 

Something that always must be addressed is to make sure we have the same understanding of the word pray, and this is usually not the case.  It is a reality that language changes over time.  Have you ever tried to read something in “old English?”  It is very difficult for us to read and understand today after just a few hundred years.  Along with that, individual words can change in meaning.  New usages can be added, and sometimes there are words whose entire meaning is altered or changed.  For fun sometime, google “words that mean the opposite of what they used to mean.”  My favorite example is the word “awful.”  It originally meant “full of awe.”  The dictionary today still renders one of its definitions as “inspiring awe.”  But is that what you think of when you hear the word “awful?”  Or just the opposite?  Today it’s an example of an auto-antonym, or a word that has multiple meanings, some of which are the opposite of the others. 

The meaning of the English word pray in common usage has narrowed over time.  Today, people often define to pray as communication with God.  Historically the definition has been much broader, and it simply means to “ask” or make a “request” of someone. 

For example, I have a hard copy of the Merriam-Webster 2004 11th edition.  It shows the definition of the word pray and the usage to address God as being the fourth definition:

  2. To get or bring about by praying
  3. To make a request in a humble manner
  4. To address God or a god with adoration, confession, supplication or thanksgiving

But Merriam-Webster on-line today has the primary definition to address God:

  1. to speak to God especially in order to give thanks or to ask for something
  2. to hope or wish very much for something to happen
  3. to seriously ask (someone) to do something

Even today however, one of the recognized meanings of the word pray is to simply ask someone to do something. 

Another way to easily visualize this change in usage is to search for the word pray in the King James Version of the Bible compared to a newer English translation like the NIV.  The word pray appears in the KJV more than 300 times, as opposed to fewer than 120 in newer translations.  In the KJV we see the usage of the word pray to simply mean a request made between people. In the newer versions those verses have been retranslated to reflect the way the meaning of the word pray has narrowed.  Here are some examples:

Genesis 13:8 (KJV) — And Abram said unto Lot, Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdmen and thy herdmen; for we be brethren. 

Genesis 13:8 (NIV) — So Abram said to Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herders and mine, for we are close relatives.”

Genesis 16:2 (KJV) — And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the Lord hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her.  And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. 

 Genesis 16:2 (NIV) — so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children.  Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” 

Acts 16:9 (KJV) — And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us. 

Acts 16:9 (NIV) — During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

One of the most common objections we can hear from Protestants is we should only pray to God, and to pray to anyone else is a form of idolatry.  But was Abraham committing idolatry when he said to Lot “I pray thee?”  If we limit the definition of the word pray to mean to speak to God especially in order to give thanks or to ask for something,” then of course it would be wrong to pray to another person.  But that is not the only usage of the word, nor has it been the primary usage of the word in centuries past. 

Sometimes people will ask me if it’s better as Catholics to say “I asked St.  Joseph to pray for me,” instead of “I prayed to St.  Joseph.”  Either would be correct phrasing from a Catholic perspective. But it may help non-Catholics to better understand if we use the term pray in the way more familiar to them, and “I asked St.  Joseph to pray for me” may better convey this. 

Agreement on an understanding of the meaning of the word pray is a first step in helping our Protestant friends better understand the Catholic position on praying to the saints.  Another common question is whether there is a Biblical basis the saints in heaven are even aware of our prayers to them?  That topic will be covered in my next post. 

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