I was recently with a Roman Catholic family in the final hours of their loved one’s life. A priest came and administered the Anointing of the Sick (what we used to call "Last Rites"). During the prayers the priest called on various saints to pray for the patient – from Abraham and David, to Mary and Peter, to John of the Cross and Francis of Assisi. In fact, after the priest named each saint, the family responded with this plea: "Pray for him." At least 10 times the family called out to different saints to "pray for him."
I have never been so comforted at someone’s death as I was in this experience. The thought that these saints of old, from the Bible and from the Church’s tradition, are praying for this dying man – what a comfort! Surely all we did was ask these saints to pray – I guess we don’t know if Francis and his friends actually got on their heavenly knees and began to pray – but even the thought that such a company of saints would bring this man to God in prayer was amazing. It was as if that room were filled with saints standing alongside the patient’s wife and children, calling out to God for mercy and peace. Amazing.
After the priest finished the rite, he asked me to step out in the hallway with him for a minute. "You’re a Lutheran, but, but . . . you were praying the ‘Hail Mary’." "Yes, Father, I did. I learned it in college and, though protestant, I find much comfort in the hope that perhaps the saints are praying with and for us. Anyway, if I’m not mistaken, Martin Luther had a quite a dedication to Mary the Mother of our Lord." Before walking away, he hugged me and gave me a look that combined confusion with a newly found admiration. Who knew that Lutherans could pray the Hail Mary?
I don’t understand why we shouldn’t call on the saints to pray for us or for those in need. They are our ancestors and predecessors in the faith whose witness has inspired us and whose wisdom has taught us. They are part of the eternal and timeless body of Christ, and as such are worthy to be asked to pray, just as I might ask you or my pastor to pray. Going even further, I can’t believe it would hurt to ask these people – these saints, after all, who had a special relationship with God – to pray as well. It might even help.
I admit that my belief about the role of the saints is not entirely worked out and probably has some unintended consequences for other aspects of my belief in God and the church. The above paragraph has slippery theological slopes for a protestant. But . . at that patient’s bedside I was comforted by the image of the company of saints praying for my patient . . . and I believe the family was comforted, too.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.