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published: 2/12/05
updated: 6/25/13

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Veneration of Saints



What is Veneration of the Saints?

saint dominic

In addition to calling upon the saints in intercession, many Roman Catholicand Orthodox Christians venerate and honor the saints through icons and images, special prayers, and other devotions.

Veneration of the saints through these practices has alarmed some Protestant Christians, who regard the practice as idolatry. This article explores the history of venerating saints, various forms of saint veneration and devotion, and some Protestant objections and Catholic responses regarding the practice.

Saints have been honored since the early church. Special veneration was first given just to martyrs, but was extended in the fourth century to include "confessors," those who suffered for their faith but not to the point of martyrdom. Bishops began to regulate the cults of various martyrs in their dioceses, although veneration of particular martyrs often extended beyond a single diocese or country. Early church councils also addressed the subject.

An important early source on the veneration of martyrs is the Martyrdom of Polycarp (c. 135 AD), which explains:

...it is neither possible for us ever to forsake Christ...nor to worship any other. For we worship him indeed, as being the Son of God. However, as for the martyrs, as disciples and followers of the Lord, we worthily love them on account of their extraordinary affections towards their own King.



History of Intercession of Saints

The Martyrdom of Polycarp also mentions that the relics of the martyrs were treated "as precious stones" and that the church celebrated the martyr's day of death as their "birthday into heaven." Similarly, around 250 AD St. Cyprian wrote:

Take note of their days on which they depart, so that we may celebrate their commemoration among the memorials of the martyrs... There are celebrated here by us oblations and sacrifices for their commemorations.

The Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c. 390 AD) instructs: "Now, concerning the martyrs, we say to you that they are to be held in all honor with you."

The Seventh Ecumenical Council (787 AD) declared that "we adore and respect God our Lord; and those who have been genuine servants of our common Lord we honor and venerate because they have the power to make us friends with God the King of all."

As seen in the language used by the Council ("servants of our Lord"), the veneration of martyrs and confessors was gradually extended to holy men in general. Eventually, veneration was limited to those designated by the pope. In a letter dated to around 1170 AD, Pope Alexander III asserts that no one should be venerated as a saint without the approval of the Roman Church. In Catholicism today, only those who have been formally canonized by the pope are permitted to be venerated. The process is slightly more informal in the Orthodox Church.

Forms of Veneration of Saints

The saints are honored and venerated in a variety of ways in Catholic and Orthodox churches. One well-known form of devotion to the saints is the use of icons and statues. Statues of saints are often found in churches, homes, and sometimes even on car dashboards. Pictures of saints are also placed in churches and homes, as well as on holy cards, religious medals, and various other objects.

Icons and images of saints are used in various ways. Common rituals include kneeling in prayer before them, touching or kissing them, gazing at them in contemplation, or simply using them as teaching tools. Before modern times, icons and images (such as stained glass windows) were an important source of knowledge for illiterate churchgoers, and they still act as a supplement to hearing sermons and reading.

Special prayers are also said for the saints, commonly as part of church services. One such prayer is the Contemporary Litany of the Saints. A litany is a long prayer said antiphonally (responsively). Following is an excerpt from the Contemporary Litany, (with the leader's part in regular type and the people's response in italics):

Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.
St. Michael, pray for us.
Holy angels of God, pray for us.
St. John the Baptist, pray for us.
St. Joseph, pray for us.
St. Peter and St. Paul, pray for us.

Another form of veneration is the novena, a short prayer said each day for nine consecutive days prior to a particular saint's feast day. It is hoped that praying novenas will lead to a special blessing on the feast day. Following is a novena to St. Benedict:

Glorious Saint Benedict, sublime model of virtue, pure vessel of God's grace! Behold me humbly kneeling at your feet. I implore you in your loving kindness to pray for me before the throne of God. To you I have recourse in the dangers that daily surround me. Shield me against my selfishness and my indifference to God and to my neighbor. Inspire me to imitate you in all things. May your blessing be with me always, so that I may see and serve Christ in others and work for His kingdom.

Graciously obtain for me from God those favors and graces which I need so much in the trials, miseries and afflictions of life. Your heart was always full of love, compassion and mercy toward those who were afflicted or troubled in any way. You never dismissed without consolation and assistance anyone who had recourse to you. I therefore invoke your powerful intercession, confident in the hope that you will hear my prayers and obtain for me the special grace and favor I earnestly implore. [insert request here]

Help me, great Saint Benedict, to live and die as a faithful child of God, to run in the sweetness of His loving will, and to attain the eternal happiness of heaven. Amen. {EWTN http://www.ewtn.com/faith/benedict.htm}

Is Veneration of Saints Idolatry?

Protestants do not generally venerate saints through prayer, nor do they keep statues or icons of saints in their homes or churches. Moreover, many conservative Protestants actively condemn Catholic and Orthodox devotions to the saints because it seems dangerously close to idolatry: worshipping a creature instead of the Creator.

In response, Catholics insist that they worship God alone, and saints are only honored and venerated as humans specially blessed by God. The Catholic Encyclopedia explains the difference:

The worship of latria (latreia), or strict adoration, is given to God alone; the worship of dulia (douleia), or honour and humble reverence, is paid the saints; the worship of hyperdulia (hyperdouleia), a higher form of dulia, belongs, on account of her greater excellence, to the Blessed Virgin Mary. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02364b.htm>

Similarly, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America explains:

In the Orthodox Church the worship (latreia) given to God is completely different from the honor (tim) of love (agape) and respect, or even veneration (proskynesis) "paid to all those endowed with some dignity" (Chrysostom).

Supporters also point out that the Bible encourages the veneration of angels, who are comparable to the saints in that they are creatures with a special relationship to God (references include Ex. 23:20; Jos. 5:13; Dan. 8:15 and 10:4; Matt. 18:10; Luke 2:9; Acts 12:7; and Rev. 5:11 and 7:1).

The Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566) taught that idolatry is committed "by worshipping idols and images as God, or believing that they possess any divinity or virtue entitling them to our worship, by praying to, or reposing confidence in them" (374). Catholic and Orthodox Christians insist that they do not commit idolatry when they venerate images.

Catholics most often explain the practice by comparing images of the saints to photographs of loved ones: both are reminders and memorials of the people they depict.

Likewise we also venerate the figures and the effigies of the divine and all-lauded Apostles, the God-speaking Prophets, and the suffering martyrs and holy men, so that through their representations we may be able to be led back in memory and recollections to the prototype, and participate in their holiness. (Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicea (787))

Catholics use statues and icons the same way that others use photographs.... Catholic statues and icons are merely religious reminders of friends and servants of god whom Catholics admire. (Catholicism for Dummies, pp. 246-47)

Catholics use statues, paintings, and other artistic devices to recall the person or thing depicted. Just as it helps to remember one’s mother by looking at her photograph, so it helps to recall the example of the saints by looking at pictures of them. ("Do Catholics Worship Statues?" Catholic Answers)

In response to these arguments, Protestants point out that the line between veneration and worship is a thin one, and average believers do not make such a clear distinction as the church and its apologists. For more arguments on both sides of this issue, see the External Links provided below.

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