I can’t go much farther without saying something about Mary and the saints because they show up a lot in Italy. If we look at Aztec art, we need to understand what Aztecs believed in order to have any context for appreciating their art; the same goes for Catholic art; we need to understand context in order to appreciate what we see. I’m not a theologian, so rather than trying to wax theosophical, I’ll just share my experience when I learned about the Catholic faith, I think that will give context to the art. Originally, I had no interest in Mary or the saints. To be honest, I thought saints were statues and paintings, it never once occurred to me that they were real people who did things that drew people to them; I wasn’t interested enough to ask questions.
In a similar way, I admired Mary, I mean she’s the mother of Jesus, but it never occurred to me to think of her any differently from anyone else’s mother; praying to her seemed to put her above Jesus, it seemed a form of idol worship and I was very much put off by it. I didn’t want to hear about Mary or the saints, so I’m guessing that if you’re reading this and you’re not Catholic, you don’t want to hear about it either. So, I’ll try to be brief.
I started taking the Catholic training known as RCIA, Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, after I became disillusioned with the churches I attended; one church taught this, the next said they were wrong and we should believe that. I read the Bible voraciously and couldn’t reconcile the Bible with several doctrines my churches and friends insisted upon. In frustration, I quit going to church and didn’t want to talk about God, I kept reading the Bible but I was fed up. Still, I was starving for God and didn’t know how to find him, it was at this time that a friend invited me to “something like a Bible study”, I thought why not? Catholics aren’t Christian, but it might be interesting to find out what they believe. It turned out the “Bible study” was an RCIA class. After I got over my annoyance at being in a class, not a study, I dived into the material the teacher provided that first night (that my friend forced into my hands, very much against my will). Some of the papers were written by, you guessed it, saints! Saints! They aren’t just statues & paintings? I was reading material written in the first four or five centuries, material written by disciples of the disciples, disciples of John the Beloved and disciples of Peter. How did I not know this material had been preserved? What drew me most was the beauty of the writing; these men described the Bible and Christianity exactly the way I would if I were brilliant, erudite and inspired by the Holy Spirit. Their writings were breath-taking and filled exactly the hole in my heart, they answered the questions I had never been able to ask cogently. The experience was a little transcendental; it must be what hearing beautiful music is like to music lovers. I couldn’t get enough. So, gentle reader, that’s how I discovered saints. I found that they are not dusty statues or paintings; some of them were brilliant writers who could explain God and faith so clearly and poetically that someone as simple as I am could find my way to the nub of the truth; they gave me a roadmap, the roadmap I had been seeking my whole life. I wanted more and more; so, I searched the internet, sometimes I read until the sun came up.
I soon discovered that there are all kinds of saints, there are the early saints who passed on what the first apostles taught them, there were saints who taught types of prayer or devotion, there were saints who were martyred for the faith or chastity (St. Maria Goretti, who died rather than succumb to rape) there were saints who gave everything they owned to the poor or established hospitals or homes for the homeless or communities of service. All their stories inspire; that’s why we acknowledge them as saints, we want to imitate them or learn from them. Some were awful sinners who converted, some were devoted from early childhood. They were outdoorspeople and bookworms, they were simple farmers and some of the greatest scholars in history. In short, they were people just like you and me who did something extraordinary. So, when I talk about this saint or that, I’m talking about a regular person who did or wrote something that touched me in a very personal way. By the way, even Protestants have saints, they just don’t formally declare certain people worthy of that title. In one of my last churches, we venerated (although we didn’t call it that) a man named John G. Lake from Spokane, Washington. Mr. Lake had a healing charism; he could touch people and they would be healed, there were many documented, miraculous healings. My church admired him, and taught about him, we read books about him; we tried to imitate him in every way we could. That’s what Catholics do with our saints, we admire them, learn everything we can about them and try to imitate them.
In addition, there is one special saint who stands out above all the others: Mary, the Mother of Jesus. I think we can all agree that she did something extraordinary, she gave birth to the Savior of the world! Should we imitate her? Absolutely, if God asks us to do something, is there any proper answer other than: “be it unto me according to your word”? In other words, shouldn’t we say yes to God no matter the cost? I don’t think there can be any dispute as to the greatness of the woman Jesus chose to be His mother. Yes, in many ways, she’s like any other mother, but we didn’t choose our mothers, Jesus chose His and prepared her to be the woman to carry holiness in her womb for nine months. Wouldn’t Jesus choose the most perfect vessel He could create? Catholics say yes. Would Jesus honor His mother? Yes, he was without sin, so, of course, He honored her, the commandment requires it. Does He do what she asks of Him, yes, that’s part of honoring her; look at the wedding at Cana, Jesus said He wasn’t ready to begin His ministry, but He obeyed His mother. She is the only person who knew Jesus His entire life, she understood Him better than anyone else ever will.
There’s one more point that might be more controversial. Why do Catholics pray to saints? It doesn’t make any sense. I know, I was offended every time I heard someone say, “Pray to Mary” or “Pray to Saint Anthony.” Isn’t that worshipping people over God? This was very tough for me. My first step in arriving at an understanding was to remember discussions I had as a Protestant: can people who have gone to Heaven hear us and see us? It was quite a debate with people taking both positions and bringing up valid points for both sides. I wasn’t attached to either position but I usually came down on the side that those in Heaven can’t see or hear us because there is only joy in Heaven, how could our loved ones experience joy if they had to watch us suffer? Catholics believe that they not only can hear us, but that they want to intercede for us because we are all one, one community of faith; they didn’t stop serving God when they died, they continued by bringing our needs to His very throne. Since I wasn’t particularly wedded to the idea that people in heaven can’t see us, I had no trouble thinking of them watching over us and wanting what’s best for us. But, praying to them? Why wouldn’t we just pray to Jesus, or to God in the name of Jesus as Jesus taught us? That question really boils down to the meaning of the word pray. Pray means to ask a favor of someone; a few generations ago, you might say to a friend, “pray, help me with this crop I need to get into the barn”. You wouldn’t be worshipping your neighbor, you’d ask him/her a favor. So, when we pray to saints, including to Saint Mary, we are simply asking them for a favor; we are not elevating them to deity status. “Dear Holy Mary, please pray for my child to recover from this awful flu”. We’re just asking for the one who interceded for the wedding couple at Cana to intercede for our child. Who has more influence than the mother? Sometimes we might use shortcuts “Mary, please help my child”, but we know she is not God, we are asking her to ask her Son to help our child. The book of Revelation talks about the prayers of the saints rising up to God in the incense at the altar, so it is a Biblical doctrine. In conclusion, then, saints are interesting people who have gone to Heaven where they are near to God, but who care about the ones left behind so they watch over us and bring our needs directly to the throne room of God on our behalf. Can we pray directly to God in the name of Jesus? Yes, we can and we do; we pray the Our Father often. Can we pray to Jesus? Yes, we can and we do. Can we call in a militia of people in Heaven to storm God’s throne room with calls for help? Yes, we can and we do. The proof is in the prayer, it’s not something you learn intellectually, it’s something you experience. All over the Catholic world, you find people who get teary-eyed and emotional about a saint, particularly Mary, they don’t react that way because they read a great treatise, they react that way because of experience; they have felt the love and response they get from their prayers. Many people claim they feel the closeness of a loved one who has passed away, that’s the feeling Catholics have about special saints. Everyone who is in Heaven is a saint, the Church has recognized some extraordinary people with the title “Saint”, but if sometimes you feel a loved one is close or you feel he or she is comforting you or guiding you, it could be that the person is a saint who wants to walk with you during the rest of your life.
I’m not asking you to believe me nor to accept these teachings, I’m just sharing them because I need to be able to talk about Mary and the saints and I need my reader to understand what I mean.