Why do Catholics pray to the Blessed Virgin Mary and to various saints? Is there anything in the Bible to back this up? Can’t this be considered idol worship? Why not pray directly to God?
The mother of Jesus Christ and the other saints have no meaning or power independent of God. Catholics and many other Christians venerate the saints as ongoing examples of what a life generously open to God’s grace can look like in a great variety of circumstances.
Jesus was a celibate, first-century man—and fully God—who faced certain situations and challenges that no longer exist in the 21st century. We pray to Mary and the saints because they encourage us to be holy now.
In Hebrews 12:1‚àí2, we read: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.”
In the previous chapter, that author extols the faith of Abel, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets (vv. 1-32). “Women [of faith] received back their dead through resurrection” (11:35a). Similar praises of women and men who exemplified great faith are found in Sirach 44:1-50:24 and 2 Maccabees 15:12-16.
The great variety of holy men and women refutes any suggestion that faith was once easier than it is now. It is possible in every social class, century, and geographic area.
In the eighth century AD, especially in the Byzantine Empire, the objection arose that praying to Mary and the other saints (represented by icons) is a form of idol worship. At the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, this assertion was rejected—with the clarification that adoration is given to God alone, that veneration is given to the saints, and that a unique veneration is given to the Virgin Mary.
Saints are not some court of final appeal, where petitioners can receive from them what God has declined to give. Officially recognized deceased saints encourage us to become living saints.
With this understanding, prayers to Mary and the other saints are a win-win situation, taking nothing away from God, but rather, prompting the person who prays to be as open to and to cooperate as generously with the grace of God as this saint did.