Of all the words we associate with the invocation of saints, these are the best known and most often said. A friend of mine, questioned by critics who assumed he was committing some sort of idolatry, answered that he was not praying to Mary, but asking her to pray for him. As such, he was not treating her as a deity, but as another person whose prayers, unhindered by the weakness of the flesh, could be a great aid in helping him against the perils of this world.
This whole subject begs genuine and sincere questions. Anglicans have no set doctrine on the matter of addressing specific saints, but a wide range of practice and points of view. On the subject of saintly intercession, it seems unthinkable that, for example, the same St. Paul who wrote the following words, has ever ceased to pray for those yet enduring the battle of the Church Militant:
For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness; Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son, etc. (Col. 1:9f)
The writer to the Hebrews tells us, concerning those who have gone before us with the mark of faith, "we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses." (Heb. 12:1) To expect their intercession is to understand that saintly spirits cannot be devoid of charity. The question, however, is one of invocation. When did this practice begin, and what was it in the earliest days? But, first, we must consider the word "saint" itself.
The word simply means "holy." In the famous "Hail Mary" devotion, "Holy Mary" means "Saint Mary" (). Some have insisted on translating "the communion of saints" (communio sanctorum) as "Holy Communion," to make it speak of the sacrament. But, this is not the sense of the phrase in the Apostle's Creed as Christian writers have recorded the Church's general understanding. Generally, it has been understood to mean that the Church is one in Christ, so much so that death is no real barrier to fellowship or κοινωνία (koinōnia).
It is, however, quite obvious that the Bible does not use the word "saint" the same way that people have been generally using it for the last several centuries. To some people it may be shocking that every Christian is called to be a saint, as St. Paul wrote. For example in Romans 1:7 and in I Corinthians 1:2, he tells everyone in the Church that each one of them (that is, of us) is called to be a saint, using the same word that he used in both of these openings of his Epistles to say that he, Paul, was called to be an Apostle. The word is "κλητός" (klētos). It is an invitation, a calling, and by usage, a vocation such as Paul's own Apostolic vocation. The meaning is clear: Each and every Christian is called to be a saint, ἅγιος (hagios), called to holiness, no matter what other calling one may have. It is the New Testament word that corresponds to the Hebrew word חָסִיד ( [C]Hasid), as in Hasidic Judaism.
The Bible does not restrict the word "saint" to those who have died and who have been canonized. According to the Bible, the Church has saints both militant and triumphant. Living people, not yet departed, are called saints in the Scriptures, made holy and set apart to God by baptism, and sanctified in life by the Holy Spirit Who provides them with virtues. We need to be aware of this, because in modern usage it is reserved to the departed and canonized individuals whose names are known. We need to recover the older and Biblical meaning in order to understand the Scriptures, and to gain the proper view both of what God calls us to, and what He by His grace can make of each one of us.
In ancient times, after a while, the Church kept its departed heroes in mind, remembering them in the Eucharist, invoking their names as the names of living spirits whose temporary departure from the body (awaiting the General Resurrection on the Last Day) should not make the living think of them as separated, as if by a great gulf too wide to traverse. They are alive in a heavenly realm with Christ, where the angels and saints make a great company around the throne of God. Neither should they be thought of as far away, beyond the reach of our love, nor us beyond the reach of theirs ("Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?...For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." - Rom. 8:35,38,39).
It took time for the word "saint" to acquire its modern usage, and even longer for that usage to be taken for the only working definition of the word. An elaborate system of canonization has evolved over many centuries, especially in the Church of Rome. Today, a departed and very special person goes through stages of beautification, and is tested supposedly by working miracles and having his reputation endure a trial. At this trial "The Devil's Advocate" lists all the reasons why said person is not a saint. If all goes well, the canonization goes through, with the Pope declaring the person a saint as an infallible teaching, in each case, of the Church. The meaning, due to the evolution of ideas (today called "Doctrinal Development"), is that the canonized "saint" has been allowed directly into the presence of God to behold the Beatific Vision (Matt. 5:8), without suffering the pains of a punitive Purgatory.
It is all very inspiring and grand to some people. But, if you were to ask me to justify this elaborate system with the Bible, or even with the witness of the Fathers of the Church, I would have to answer that the task is impossible. It is not from the Bible, and was not known in the ancient centuries of the Church. It has grown over the years. No such process of canonization was known in Antiquity, and I can make no case for it now, especially with its dependence on doctrinal innovations such as Purgatory.
But, that saints of the Church Triumphant, who possess the virtue of charity, pray for those yet in the Church Militant, surrounding them in a cloud of witnesses , I do not doubt. Certainly, Heaven is all around us, the glory of it hidden from our mortal eyes to protect us from a sight we cannot endure in this fallen condition. We are not ready to see the glory of God all around us (Isaiah 6:3).
What then of invocation? Did any Ecumenical Council establish a doctrinal and authoritative dogma about it? No. A dogma about invocation does not exist. What does exist is very old practice, practice that is mostly devotional. The questions that arise generally are about whether or not the practice is dangerous, or whether or not it contradicts the Gospel. Does it amount to idolatry when Christians ask those who have departed, but who surround them in the great cloud of witnesses, to pray as intercessors? Does it make those departed saintly spirits into extra mediators, as if we needed more than the One Mediator Himself?
The answer to these questions is no; no more than my asking you to pray for me, or you asking me to pray for you. It would not be idolatry, obviously, nor is it logical to treat simple intercession as if it were equal to Divine-human Mediation, which only one Man, Jesus Christ, may do (I Tim. 2:5). I do ask you to pray for me. St. Paul, in his Epistles, both said he prayed for his children in the Faith and asked them to pray for him. No one can suggest, with any plausibility, that this amounts to anything that diminishes the unique role of our Lord and Savior.
I recall a very well known theologian, possibly the only real theologian in the Charismatic Movement during the 1970s, named W.J. Ern Baxter. He told a story about how his grandmother always prayed for him in the early days of his preaching ministry, and that when she died he felt a great loss because she could pray for him no longer. His story would end by telling how other people volunteered to pray in her place, and everyone would feel good inside. With all due respect for the man, a very learned man, why did he assume that his grandmother could no longer pray for him? Is death such a boundary as all that? The Lord Jesus told us, "For he is not a God of the dead, but of the living: for all live unto him." (Luke 20:38)
I cannot promise, however, that specific saints hear specific requests, for though the Church has long practiced calling on departed saints by name, each one is still a limited, finite being who waits to be clothed again in the resurrection. We must not imagine that they have become omniscient, omnipotent or omnipresent. Like the angel who spoke to John on Patmos, they are our fellow servants. Nor can I recommend endless learning about specific saints, as if that constituted necessary religious instruction, in place of learning the Bible and the substance of our Faith. Nor can I accept the judgments of the Church of Rome about every person they recognize in the manner in which they use the word "saint."
Yet, knowing that the cloud of witnesses surrounds us, I can say as a devotion the words from the Gospel of Luke that constitute the Hail Mary (Luke 1:28, 42,43) and follow them with Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. I cannot promise anyone that she herself hears all those requests for prayer, having no chapter and verse to point to. After all, she is only human. But, I cannot doubt that she, along with St. Paul and so many others, pray for those of us who have yet more to endure in this battle, before we too may rest a while.