As Catholics we believe in what the Apostles and Nicene Creeds call “the communion of saints”. In other words, we believe that all saints everywhere united into one Church because there is only one Body of Christ. The faithful on earth (the Church militant), the faithful in Purgatory (the Church suffering), and the faithful in heaven (the Church triumphant) are all one and the same Church. And as one Church, we are all in communion with each other. In practice, this means that we pray for those suffering in Purgatory, and we ask the Saints in heaven to pray for us who are still pilgrims on this earth.
However, a common misconception about us Catholics is that we worship Mary and pray to the Saints instead of God. The most common argument against the perceived Catholic practice is 1 Tim 2:5 where St. Paul tells St. Timothy that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only Mediator between God and man.
So, do we as Catholics really pray to Mary and the Saints? Well...yes and no. It depends on what you mean by “praying”. In the Protestant notion of “praying”, which refers to supplications that can be made to God alone as the Provider, the answer is a resounding “NO”. Only God is to be worshipped and only God is to be prayed to in that sense.
But there is a sense in which we “pray” to Mary and the Saints and I think that a good way to illustrate it is by a reference to an old Elizabethan English phrase. In the Dhouay-Rheims Bible (or the King James Version for that matter), a request of a fellow human-being was often phrased “I pray thee...” (e.g. Gen 12:13; 13:9, etc.). In this sense, the “praying” being done is simply a request. And it is in this way that we “pray” to Mary and the Saints. We are making requests of them as fellow, albeit glorified, human beings. And those requests usually take the form of asking them to pray to God for us.
Ultimately, when we ask our Lady or the Saints to pray for us, we are not doing anything different than when we ask a close Christian brother or sister to pray for us. We ask each other to intercede for us all the time. Does this mean that we deny that Jesus Christ is the only Mediator between God and men? Absolutely not! Rather, it emphasises this truth because the prayers of all the saints, whether in heaven or on earth, are always made in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The difference is that, because we on earth still struggle with sin, our prayers can sometimes be tainted with selfish or wrong motives, or we may simply be asking God for something that is contrary to His will. But the Saints in Heaven are perfect and freed from sin – and because they are that much closer to the Heart of God, their prayers will always be in line with God’s will.
So, let us never cease to pray for one another on earth, and may we never cease seeking each others’ prayers; but may we also be more diligent in seeking the intercession of the Saints, and especially our Holy Mother, remembering that God will hear their prayers because “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).