Saints as intercessors vs. saints as ideals

Catholics views saints formally as intercessors. The canonization process is simply a test to see whether a person can be appealed to as an intercessor within the liturgy.

In the middle ages this role as intercessor was much broader and more urgent, but it was based on superstition and false theology. Saints had a special urgency for the Medieval persons so far as they saw God as essentially filled with wrath that needed to be placated. This idea of divine wrath was supported by the superstition that sickness and other physical privations were punishments for the personal sins of the person. The saint, however, was “one of us” who was close to God and could therefore not only speak on our behalf but was even necessary to heal our physical ailments and the privations we suffered. No saints, no health, no crops, no good luck, etc.

As soon as God was seen as a merciful Father and sickness as something that was more appropriate to treat with human art, we lost the unique and pressing urgency for the saint as intercessor. The necessity of the saint remains, but it needed to be re-visualized in a way that we have yet to adequately accomplish. One way to illustrate the problem is to notice the tension between being an intercessor and being a role model or ideal for action. An intercessor is sought chiefly for their ability to get things done, but a role model is sought in light of totally different criteria. Intercessors are in one sense replacements for role models – we are looking to use their power, not attain to it. They are already holy so we don’t need to be.

Obviously, if it comes to this we’ve reached a dead end. On the whole, it was good to lose the idea of personal sickness as personal judgment and of God as a vengeful accuser (The only one called “accuser” in Scripture is Satan). But one side effect of this was to lose a urgent, coherent justification for the communion of saints. But truth demanded the change. We might replace it with an idea of saint as hero- intercessor, though the intercessory role might be in need of an updated basis.



  1. E.R. Bourne said,

    April 5, 2014 at 4:32 pm

    James, does this approach greatly increase the emphasis on biography? I know many people that have been personally moved and even changed because of, say, Story of a Soul, or even the Confessions. This seems to me to be an attempt to respond to the revised role of the saint as model, but I do not know what role biography played in middle age saint veneration so I do not know if it was significantly different.

  2. dpmonahan said,

    April 6, 2014 at 3:10 pm

    1) The idea of the saint as intercessor is not medieval, but ancient. Church fathers reference it, and ancient graffiti around the tombs of martyrs suggest it was a practice well before the Edict of Milan.
    2) There is no reason why the saints should not be allowed to perform an act of charity, praying for their spiritual descendants.
    3) Your assertion that the cult of saints grew out of a medieval desire to control nature, besides being unhistorical, has the same fallacy as the argument that religion itself is borne out of fear of nature and desire to control it: it leaves out the human experience of religious piety.

    • April 6, 2014 at 5:19 pm

      Nothing I say requires the idea of intercessor to start in the middle ages. I never dispute the second claim. I don’t know where the last claim is coming from. You want me to be arguing something else. I speak about the middle ages to be illustrative and provide a point of comparison, not to explain the communion of Saints or the devotion to it.

  3. Craig said,

    April 9, 2014 at 1:08 pm

    I assume the idea of saint as model also goes back to early days. Are there any other roles saints have filled in church history?

    For that matter, when Medievals talked about the role of the saints as intercessors, didn’t they come up against the fact that overemphasis on God’s wrath is theologically dicey? What did they actually say about the saints and intercessory prayer?

  4. April 12, 2014 at 3:02 pm

    What about saints as patrons? (For instance, John the Baptist as patron of fullers, or Catherine of Alexandria as patrons of philosophers, or Nicholas of Myra as patron of thieves.) This seems not to be completely reducible to their status as either intercessors or models; and it was a much bigger part of medieval life than it has become.

    • April 12, 2014 at 3:23 pm

      I hadn’t thought about patrons. It seems there could be some way to distinguish this from intercession, if patronage isn’t just specifying a special domain of intercessory interest, say in the way most of us invoke Anthony or Rita.

      • April 12, 2014 at 3:41 pm

        I’m thinking especially of things like guild patrons, like Saint Barbara for artillery, whose role as patron of an entire way of life seems to go beyond just intercession or being a model; or patrons where there’s obviously an intercessory element, and a model element, but where there seems to be something more going on due to curious circumstances, like Nicholas for thieves or Julian the Hospitaller for murderers, where it seems that part of the point is not just to intercede, nor in any direct way to be a model or ideal, but to be a sign of hope and the possibility of salvation. And Chesterton in a Short History of England has a comment that I was also thinking of, although perhaps this would fall under the model idea:

        “The conception of a patron saint had carried from the Middle Ages one very unique and as yet unreplaced idea. It was the idea of variation without antagonism. The Seven Champions of Christendom were multiplied by seventy times seven in the patrons of towns, trades and social types; but the very idea that they were all saints excluded the possibility of ultimate rivalry in the fact that they were all patrons.”

  5. May 12, 2014 at 6:44 pm

    If I wanted to know an answer to a question on physics, I wouldn’t ask God but my uncle. I could ask God, and He may even reply, but then my uncle wouldn’t earn merit for doing a good deed, and we wouldn’t grow closer as relatives through this interaction.

    So, asking saints for intercession then is an expression of the fact that we humans and even good angels “ought to take care of each other.” We ought to do works of mercy for each other for free or simply contribute to society, as my uncle might teach his students for a price.

    So, asking a saint, say, Thomas, to “watch over me and help me master philosophy” serves two purposes: (1) it honors Thomas (who himself points out that honor is the best thing one person may receive from another), (2) it gives him an opportunity to help someone he may love and therefore himself become happier.

    If I asked God directly, then neither (1) nor (2) would occur.

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