Much of the discussion I’ve seen has been centered around the Nun who claims to have been miraculously cured of Parkinson’s disease through the intercession of John Paul II.
I’ve found many of the discussions to be deep in misunderstanding of Catholic teaching, and also not realizing the connection to a regular practice held by most of the Christian individuals (Latter-day Saint included) who may be speaking dismissively of the Catholic belief and Practice.
I. Catholicism Does Not Teach Worship of Saints, Or Teach their Equality With God
In Catholicism, God (meaning the Trinity of The Father, The Son [Jesus Christ] and the Holy Ghost) is understood as the Sole Object of Worship, and is the sole source by which Salvation flows.
While individuals designated saints (literally ‘holy ones’ – those who are officially recognized by the Church as having lived holy lives, and who are understood to have been received into heaven) may have requests addressed towards them, it is with the understanding that they are to serve as messengers and advocates, and not with the power to independently perform the requested miracle or service themselves.
II. Catholicism Equates ‘Prayer’ with its true meaning of ‘Request’, and not with ‘Worship’.
The way it’s understood by most Catholics I’ve encountered is through the same principle as asking living individuals to pray for you. There’s not an expectation that the individuals you ask to pray will actually perform the requested miracle, or cause it to be accomplished, but that their faith and influence may add to your own faith and hope. Since Catholics believe (as most Christians do) in life after death, they believe those who have passed on are still living – but now in God’s physical presence, and able to petition literally and physically ‘Face to face’ with Him.
Specific saints are chosen who are known to have had a specific ‘heart for’, or concern for a specific ailment. Since John Paul II suffered from Parkinson’s, an individual afflicted with this would understand John Paul to have a particular compassion for those praying for relief from such an affliction. He would serve as an additional advocate on their behalf to a petition to God.
III. Call It What You Will, You Probably Participate In The Intercession of the Saints, Too.
While in codified doctrinal thought, most Christians do not believe additional individuals praying add to the efficacy of the petition (most, myself included, believe in a God who is personal and loving, and is interested in and sees to the needs of the One, even if unknown by anyone else), in practice, many desire to know that others are joined in unity for a specific cause. It is a key way we build a community of like-minded individuals who ‘mourn with those that mourn’, and ‘comfort those in need of comfort’. It is a powerful illustration of the ideal Zion community, with one’s lack and desires being shared in compassion by all.
Mormons, specifically, have a practice of submitting names of those sick or otherwise afflicted to the ‘Prayer Roll’ of Temples, where the names are placed on an altar before the symbolic presence of the Lord, and individuals within (Latter-day Saints known to be in good and honorable standing) will offer sacred dedicated prayers on their behalf. All adult members in good standing who attend the Temple are able to participate in such prayers.
Since the Temple is viewed as a symbol of the Presence of God, and from antiquity those serving in the temples were understood as being representative of intercessory Angels (see, for example, Revelation 8:3–4 ), a distinct parallel can be made from Catholics asking specific individuals to pray to God for them, and Mormons asking anonymous faithful members serving in the Temples to do so.
In both cases, it is literally the Intercession of the Saints that is being requested.
Concluding Thoughts For Mormons
Latter-day Saints should give particular pause when considering ill-speaking (or thinking) of this particular Catholic belief and practice, because we as a Church do singularly and specifically believe (and teach in our scriptures: see D&C 138 ) that those who have passed on continue to exercise authority given them from God, and specifically participate in ministry, and other sacred assignments. We also teach that our ancestors who have passed on specifically have a special interest in our lives.
That doesn’t mean I encourage or endorse prayers directed towards those who have passed on for intercession. I don’t know of any Mormons suffering from Cancer who have prayed to Elder Neal A. Maxwell for intercession, or anyone with a bum leg who has prayed to Joseph Smith to put in a good word for them.
In fact, I don’t know of a single Church leader who has ever advocated such a practice. As it stands, it is, and has been, the clear and consistent teaching of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that we direct our prayers singly and solely towards Our Heavenly Father, in the name of Jesus Christ.
But with the doctrines and practices we do hold in mind, I suggest that we as a people might be a little slower to condemn a practice and doctrinal understanding that – while different in important ways – is also quite similar in its fundamentals to our own deep routed beliefs and practices.