Veneration of the Saints

Worship is the homage which goodness claims as its due. God is the all good, and therefore claims supreme homage or worship, which is known as latria. But creatures, too, are good, and some creatures there are that possess the kind of goodness--virtue, namely, or moral worth--which merits the homage of rational beings.



Man, the creature of God, made in God’s image, having God for his last end, is bound to worship God by the very law of his being, a law the yoke of which he can no more shake off than he can divest himself of the nature that makes him a man. This is man’s first and highest duty; this is God’s first commandment. This commandment, so far forth as it is prohibitory, forbids our giving to any created being the supreme homage which is due to God alone. “Thou shalt not have strange gods before me.” The essence of idolatry lies in giving to a creature the worship due to the Creator. To understand this we must first consider what worship is.

Worship is a species of honor. It is that religious honor which is paid to a superior being. Its motive cause is virtue or moral excellence. Intellectual gifts may challenge our admiration; virtue alone commands respect; virtue alone claims as peculiarly its own the tribute of honor. The measure of the virtue or moral excellence, that is in a being, is the measure of the honor to which it is entitled. Hence it follows that, as in God there is moral excellence without measure, seeing that He sums up in His being all perfection, there is due to God supreme religious honor or worship. To render to any creature this supreme religious honor is idolatry; for no matter how great the moral excellence of a creature may be, it comes infinitely short of the moral excellence of the Creator. But if a creature be wholly devoid of moral excellence, to give it supreme religious honor is the crassest kind of idolatry. This is idolatry in the strictest sense, the worship of idols, the worship of things that are devoid not only of virtue or moral excellence, but of intelligence and of sense. It would seem, however, that man, no matter how low he may have fallen, no matter how degraded, never worships a senseless and lifeless thing, such as an idol, for its own sake. Even the most degraded fetich worshiper of darkest Africa does not mean to pay religious honor to a stock or stone as such–to an image that has eyes and sees not, ears and hears not. He believes, as missionaries relate, that there is a virtue and an intelligence in the image or in some way connected with it, a spirit in short, which is pleased and flattered by the worship offered, and is kept from working mischief to the worshiper. The worship of idols is in reality devil-worship in disguise. And as the devil, or fallen angel, is wholly bereft of moral excellence, his whole nature being warped and irretrievably turned to evil, to offer him any sort of religious honor is contrary to the law of nature and monstrous, while to offer him the supreme homage due to God alone, of which the outward symbol is sacrifice, is the very worst and most detestable form of idolatry.


Though subjectively and on the part of the one who sins, there may be more grievous sins than idolatry, yet objectively and in itself there is, as St. Thomas teaches, no sin so grievous. It is an act of treason against the Divine Majesty. Hence the terrible chastisements inflicted uppn men because of it under the old dispensation. Of the Israelites who worshiped the golden calf there were slain in one day about three and twenty thousand (Exod. xxxii. 28). Because of idolatry in the after time “the Lord cast off all the seed of Israel, and afflicted them, and delivered them into the hand of spoilers, till he cast them away from his face” (4 Kings xvii. 20).


What prompts man to offer worship, whether to God or to a creature, whether idolatrous or not, is either fear or love. In the case of devil-worship, direct or indirect, it is fear alone that impels, for the devil can inspire fear but cannot inspire love. In the worship of God, on the other hand, both fear and love may be impelling motives, for the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and in any case a feeling of awe is closely bound up with the sentiment of religion. But under the New Law especially, which is the law of love, the supreme motive that impels man to worship God is charity, the love of God above all things for His own sake. The love of God thus goes hand in hand with the worship of God, so that where love is wanting worship is purely formal–not worship in spirit and in truth. “These people,” is God’s plaint about the Israelites of old, “honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” And because love is to worship as its very soul, its principle of life, when man loves any creature unduly, gives to the creature that supreme love of preference which God claims as His own, he is said to make an idol of that creature, and becomes guilty of a species of idolatry. Hence the Apostle calls covetousness “a serving of idols” (Eph. v. 5). There is little danger of our falling into that gross idolatry which so grieved the heart of God under the old dispensation. But how many, alas! are there today, even among professing Christians, who are “servers of idols” in the sense of the Apostle? Great is Mammon, the god of our modern world, and great, even past counting, are the multitudes who worship at his shrine. “The desire of money,” the Apostle tells us, “is the root of all evil,” and “they that will become rich,” i.e., have set their hearts on amassing wealth, “fall into temptation, and into the snare of the devil, and into many unprofitable and hurtful desires which drown men in destruction and perdition.” This is the idolatry that we must be on our guard against today more than ever in the worship of wealth. This is the gospel of the world, and to it we must oppose the gospel of Christ, and the example of Christ, who, “being rich, became poor for our sakes.” “Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth, where the moth consumes and where thieves break through and steal”–such is the burden of His preaching. “But having food and wherewithal to be covered,” says His Apostle, “with these we are content.” It is the gospel of the simple life, in which alone is found peace and contentment here below. Let us lay to heart the lesson contained in the parable of the rich man and the beggar. The rich man, clothed in purple and fine linen, fared sumptuously every day; the beggar, in his rags, lay at the rich man’s gate, and would fain be fed with the crumbs that fell from his table. To both comes death, the leveler, and the scene is changed. The beggar rests in Abraham’s bosom; the rich man is buried in hell.





Worship is the homage which goodness claims as its due. God is the all good, and therefore claims supreme homage or worship, which is known as latria. But creatures, too, are good, and some creatures there are that possess the kind of goodness–virtue, namely, or moral worth–which merits the homage of rational beings. Such, in a preeminent sense, are “the spirits of the just made perfect,” the saints and the holy angels who dwell with God. Honor to whom honor is due–this is the principle, rooted in reason itself, on which rests the veneration which we Catholics pay to the saints. And the veneration which we pay them is a species of religious worship. It is akin to that which we pay to God Himself, though immeasurably lower. They are with God; they are the friends of God; they see Him face to face; they share in His glory; they are good with His goodness, having been made “partakers of the divine nature” in a far fuller and richer sense than His servants here below. It is fitting, therefore, it is consonant with reason, it is a dictate of religion, that they should be honored. There is no taint of superstition or of idolatry in the veneration we pay to the saints. Those who think so, those who say so, either do not know what superstition means and what idolatry means, or they have an altogether false idea of the nature of the honor we give to the saints. We worship God as the fountain of all goodness; we venerate the saints for the goodness that is theirs as derived from God. We read in Scripture that Josue fell on his face to the ground and worshiped, i.e., did homage to an angel who described himself as “a prince of the host of the Lord” (Josue v. 13-15). Our blessed Lord Himself tells us that the saints are “equal to the angels, and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection” (Luke xx. 36). In honoring the sons of God, we honor God Himself, for the honor given to sons is reflected upon their father. To distinguish it from the honor given to God, the honor shown to the angels and saints is called dulia.


But not only do we Catholics venerate the saints; we invoke them also, we ask them to pray for us. The Council of Trent teaches that “the saints reigning with Christ offer up their prayers to God for men; that it is good and profitable suppliantly to invoke them, and to have recourse to their prayers and assistance in order to obtain favors from God through His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who is our only Redeemer and Saviour” (Sess. xxv). This doctrine stands to reason. But mark the words “good and profitable.” The invocation of saints is, therefore, not necessary, for Jesus Christ is “our only Redeemer and Saviour.” The saints are God’s friends, dear to Him beyond the power of words to tell. They have laid up treasures, untold treasures, for themselves in heaven; they are rich in spiritual goods, in the goods of God’s kingdom, and their charity, which we know to have been so great and far-reaching in this life, is made perfect in heaven. Good and profitable it must be, then, for us to crave at their hands a share in those spiritual goods wherein we are conscious of being so poor. Surely the law of analogy holds throughout life, and what is everywhere true in this world must, in due proportion, be true in the next. Do we not find that those who are poor in the goods of this world go to those who are rich for help in their distress? And is it not in keeping with the plan of God’s providence that the rich should give to the poor? Even so it is part of His providence that the saints in heaven, who are rich in the goods of that everlasting kingdom, should make us poor ones partakers of their riches. And even as beggars, the blind, the maimed, and the halt, gather at the door of some great cathedral in Latin lands to crave an alms of those who enter, so we, blinded and maimed by sin, conscious of our spiritual destitution, raise suppliant hands to the saints who reign with Christ, as we beg of them, one by one, in their litany, to make intercession for us.


But there is one who is Queen of God’s kingdom. Queen of the angels and of the saints, Mother of God, to whom, therefore, there is due a special kind of veneration which is known as hyper-dulia, for she, as a poet has happily said, “all but adoring love may claim.” “Behold,” she foretold herself, “from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” We do, then, but fulfil the will of God, as announced in prophecy, when we invoke her as our holy Queen and the Mother of Mercy–yea, our life, our sweetness, and our hope, of course in a secondary and derived sense, as being the sweet Mother of our Saviour and the morning star of our hope that heralded His dawning. Her very face and form, as Cardinal Newman says, speak to us of the eternal, and she is set, as it were, at the head of the way that leads to Him, with a creature’s comeliness and luster suited to our state. If the earthly king, Assuerus, for love of Esther, his queen, granted her petition when she besought him for the lives of her people, how much more will our heavenly King grant to the prayers of our Queen and Mother the salvation of those who have recourse to her. “We fly to thy patronage, O holy Mother of God, despise not our petitions in our necessities, but ever deliver us from, all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin.”


We have seen that moral worth alone merits honor or worship. The moral worth of God is not only intrinsic in His being, but sovereign and independent. The moral worth of the saints, while limited and dependent because derived from God, is yet intrinsic, that is to say, is really their own. Hence the honor we pay them is not relative but absolute, as founded upon intrinsic moral worth. In other words, we honor them not merely for God’s sake, whose goodness they mirror forth, but also for their own sakes, as possessing a real goodness of their own. But there is moral worth which is wholly relative, which a thing has solely from its relation to that in which such moral worth actually exists, i.e., to some person, for virtue or moral worth is an attribute of persons, not of things. A thing we may not honor absolutely and for its own sake, but only relatively and for the sake of the person with whom it is in some way or other connected. When we pay religious honor or worship to a thing, the worship is purely relative. Such is that which is given to sacred images and relics. There are many ways in which a thing may be related to a person, but they may be conveniently reduced to these two classes: (1) things may stand for or represent persons, as in the case of emblems or symbols, images, statues; (2) things may have belonged to or have been in contact with a person, as portions of the bones or garments of a saint, the wood of the true Cross, etc.

When we honor or venerate relics and images, we do so, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the persons whose relics or images they are. To accuse us of the contrary is gross calumny. But there is something peculiar about images, in that they represent, i.e., make present to us, or stand for, the person of their original. It is not the material image we honor or worship, the marble, or canvas, or color; it is the person in the image. The same is true of symbols. Who does not know of the military custom of saluting the flag ? The flag stands for the country. Could anyone be so silly as to fancy that it is the country itself which flutters in the breeze ? Yet when the flag is honored it is deemed, and justly, that the country is honored; and conversely, to insult the flag is to insult the country. So with religious images. “Tell me, then,” says Cardinal Newman, “what is meant by burning bishops, or cardinals, or popes in effigy? How is it childish to honor an image, if it is not childish to dishonor it ?” The eyes of the body rest on the figure in the image, the canvas or colors of the painting; the eye of the mind, illumined by faith, pierces beyond these, and rests upon the person of the Divine Redeemer, the Blessed Virgin, or some saint. On Good Friday the Church adores the cross or crucifix, and addresses it as representing or holding the place of the Saviour Himself. The ceremony is in principle the same as saluting the flag. “The very flower and cream of Protestantism,” says Newman, “used to glory in the statue of King William, on College Green, Dublin, and though I cannot make my reference in print, I recollect well what a shriek they raised some years ago when the figure was unhorsed. Some profane person one night applied gunpowder, and blew the king right out of his saddle, and he was found by those who took interest in him, like Dagon, on the ground. You might have thought the poor senseless block had life to see the way people took on about it, and how they spoke of his face, and his arms, and his legs; yet those same Protestants, I say, would at the same time be horrified had I used ‘he’ and ‘him’ of a crucifix, and would call me one of the monsters described in the Apocalypse did I but honor my living Lord as they their dead king.”

Catholic veneration of relics, then, and of images, far from being silly, or superstitious, or idolatrous, is, on the contrary, conformable to right reason and to human custom. Who does not treasure up and set a great value on even a lock of hair, or the most trifling object, that once belonged to some loved one–parent, relative or friend ? And again, do not men, in their human way, as Newman has pointed out, speak of a person’s image as if it were the person himself? Are they not in the habit of saying, “This is my father,” or “my mother,” or “my cousin,” instead of saying, “This is my father’s picture” or “my mother’s picture”? When we venerate the relics of saints or sacred images, we do but follow a custom established among men, and transfer it to a higher sphere of action. Out of a human sentiment we fashion a practice of supernatural devotion.


No Catholic household should be without its crucifix and its images of Jesus and Mary. They serve more than anything else to put vividly before us the great truths of faith, and awaken pious thoughts, to bring us into daily and hourly contact with Jesus our Saviour and His Blessed Mother. They are, besides, a mute but eloquent witness of the faith that molds our lives. It is painful to enter a Christian home and find it bare of these images, or to find the place of honor given to profane and sometimes sensuous pictures. This is to say in so many words, as the children of Israel said of old, when they prostrated themselves before the golden calf: “These be thy gods, O Israel, that brought thee out of the house of bondage.”






The Feast of All Saints is the annual commemoration of all those who are honored in the Church as holy men and women whose lives are worthy of imitation and whose intercession we may profitably seek in prayer. The feast honors all the Saints of the Church but especially those to whom no special feast-day is assigned in the calendar of the ecclesiastical year. The veneration of the Saints is as old as Christianity itself. In the early ages it was the Martyrs who were especially honored, because those whose lives were shining examples of Christian virtue or whose position made them leaders in the Church were the natural targets for the enemies of the faith of Christ. Thus for several centuries every Pope was also a Martyr. Later when a period of greater peace came, the honors paid to the martyrs were extended to other holy men and women who were eminent for sanctity though they were not called upon to give the supreme test, the shedding of their life’s blood in testimony of their faith in Christ. Then as the Church developed in extent and in organization, there developed also the process of canonization, the official recognition of the sanctity of certain of the faithful, by placing them on the authorized lists of the Saints of the Church and assigning some day to each, usually the day of his death, as a special day on which he would be honored by commemoration in the liturgy.


The just who have died are not considered as having crossed an entirely impassable gulf separating them from the men and women whom they have left behind in this world. Though they have entered the world of spirit, a world whose conditions of life are far different from those of the world in which we live, yet they have not lost their individual identity nor their particular interests. There is a certain alliance between the faithful on earth and the just who have gone to God, an alliance which is called the Communion of Saints. We speak, therefore, of the Church triumphant in Heaven, the Church militant on earth, and the Church suffering in purgatory, not as constituting three distinct bodies, but as forming one great society between whose members there is a close bond. In this sense the Apostle reminds us that we are co-citizens and coheirs with the saints in glory. We are all members of the one great body of which Christ is the head. We are all members of the one great kingdom of which Christ is the King.

The mystic body of Christ has as its members not only the faithful on earth, but also the blessed in Heaven and among its members there is an intimate bond of charity. All are regarded as constituting one sentient body, every member of which is in sympathy with the whole and with the other members. St. Paul wrote of the Church, “Who is weak and I am not weak? Who is scandalized and I am not on fire?” (2 Cor. xl. 29), and his words are true not only of the Church on earth but of the Church in its broader significance as including the faithful on earth and the blessed in Heaven.

St. John Chrysostom having in mind the concord between the members of the mystical body of Christ, writes: “We are the feet, the martyrs are the head. But the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ The martyrs are indeed the glorious members of this body but their excelling glory does not place them outside the union which they have with the other parts, for they are most glorious because the unity with us is unbroken, as the eye, though brighter than any other organ of the body, retains its splendor only when it is not separated from the rest.”


There is no reason to suppose that the sympathetic bond of charity is loosened, but every reason to suppose that it is strengthened by the chasm of the grave which lies between the faithful on earth and the saints in paradise. The interest which man has in his fellow men surely continues when he passes to the world beyond. The teaching of the Church, as defined by the Council of Trent (Sess. xxv), tells us that it is useful to invoke in prayer the Saints who reign with Christ and to seek their prayers and their help to secure favors from God through His Divine Son, who alone is our Redeemer and our Saviour. We beg the prayers of our friends in this world, especially of those whom we esteem as upright and pleasing in the sight of God, remembering that the “prayer of the just man availeth much.” Is it not even more logical to ask the prayers of those of whose favor in the eyes of Heaven we have the official guarantee of the Church? Do we not read in the words of the Prophet of the angel of God begging mercy of the Lord of Hosts for Jerusalem and the cities of Juda against whom He was angry? (Zach. i. 12). And of the divine promise to protect and save a city “because of David my servant”? (4 Kings xix. 34). Pertinent here are the words of St. Jerome, “If the Apostles and martyrs while still in the flesh prayed for others, how much more will their prayers avail after their victorious triumphs.” When they have gone to the Master’s house, will their prayers be less efficacious? Will their interest in their fellow men on earth be lost? Has the solicitude of St. Peter for all the churches, a solicitude born with the conferring of the keys of supreme authority by the hands of Christ Himself, died with the crucifixion on the Vatican Hill? Has the patriotic devotion of St. Jeanne d’Arc for France been destroyed by her passage through the flames of the stake to the world beyond?

The faithful on earth and the faithful in Heaven are members of Christ united in His mystical body. Such is the bond of sympathetic love between the members of the body of Christ that, in the words of St. Paul, “If one member suffers anything, all the members suffer with it; if one member glory, all the members rejoice with it” (i Cor. xii. 25). This sympathetic bond is not severed but rather strengthened by death. If we can subscribe to these three propositions, is it unreasonable to believe that the members of Christ who are in glory can pray for those who are still on the field of battle ? Is it too much to believe that we who are fighting in the warfare of life can find it useful to implore the intercession of those who have had successful experience of the same conflict in order that they may secure for us the strength of grace which we need now as they once needed it? We invoke the Saints, therefore, not that they can grant us anything of their own power, but we pray to them as influential friends at the divine Court who can sympathize with our need, since they lived this life as men and women like ourselves.


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