"Pray to" does not = "Worship"

My wife came home yesterday with a beautiful little book she found in a local secondhand book store called “Angels are my Friends”. You might be surprised to find that this is a Lutheran production, from Concordia Publishing House, and Cathy was attracted by the fact that it has Luther’s Morning Prayer inside it. (For those who don’t know Luther’s beautiful morning and evening prayers, see here).

As she was going out last night, she left me with directions to use this book as our bed-time devotion with the kids, which I was happy to do. Before reading the book, we read the prayer of Luther, although the kids are more familiar with his evening prayer. I told them that perhaps we could paste the evening prayer into the front cover too, and put in the back cover one of Mia’s favourite prayers “Angel of God, my Guardian dear” and the Prayer to St Michael.

Anyway, we read through the book, which is littered with little bible references to everything about angels all the way through (though without directly quoting the passages).

All was going swimmingly until, towards the very end, we came to this:

As Grandmother closed her bible, she added, “Of course, even though angels are wonderful and we thank God for our good angel friends, we should never worship or pray to them. We worship and pray to God alone” (Matthew 4:10).

Ah, I said, here is one point in “The difference between Lutherans and Catholics 101”). We looked up the bible passage to which Grandmother refers, which reads:

Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’

I pointed out that the passage says we must not worship anyone except God, and that it did not say anything about praying to the saints and angels, which is something that I regular do with the girls (Mia is on a rosary kick at the moment, asking for me to say a decade of the rosary with her each night before she goes to sleep – she uses a little knotted rosary given to her by one of the Dominican Sisters from Nashville at World Youth Day). I said that it is a common mistake of Lutherans to think that when Catholics pray to the saints and angels they are “worshipping” them.

“That’s silly,” piped in Maddy, “praying just means talking to.” Right you are my dear.

And yet this confusion between prayer as an expression of worship and prayer as an expression of communion and intercession is probably the most common reason why protestants object to the traditional practice of Catholic and Orthodox Christians, and why they fail to understand what we are doing when we pray to saints and angels. (Mind you, I am not discounting the fact that many Catholics may not make the proper distinction either in popular practice.) But if Maddy – at 10 years old – can understand the difference, surely it ought not be too difficult for theologians to understand this?

Looking at the Catechism, there isn’t a lot there about prayer to saints and angels. Of course, since it is based on the traditional catechism structure of Creed, Sacraments, Lord’s Prayer and 10 commandments, it focuses more on the “communion of the saints” and prayer as an expression of trust and worship of God. But it does regularly refer to the practice of “asking the intercession” of the saints and angels, eg.

2683 The witnesses who have preceded us into the kingdom41 [cf. Heb 12:1], especially those whom the Church recognizes as saints, share in the living tradition of prayer by the example of their lives, the transmission of their writings, and their prayer today. They contemplate God, praise him and constantly care for those whom they have left on earth. When they entered into the joy of their Master, they were “put in charge of many things” [cf. Mt 25:21]. Their intercession is their most exalted service to God’s plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world.

As Maddy rightly points out, this practice of intercession has more of the character of “talking to” than “worshipping”, and should be distinguished from what we are talking about when we speak of prayer to God.

So we crossed “or pray” out in the above quotation from Grandmother. I told Cathy about this afterwards, and I think it is probably safe to say she wasn’t completely happy. However, as I pointed out, the text cited does not prohibit prayer to the angels, and therefore it was not completely honest of Grandmother to use the text in a polemical way like this. After all, if Lutherans wish to rely on the bible alone for their teaching, it isn’t really fair to add to what it doesn’t say, is it?

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0 Responses to "Pray to" does not = "Worship"

  1. Joshua says:

    Good, David! I love the image of your dear daughters growing up as commonsense theologians – would that the learned and the clever take note (not that your kids aren’t learned and clever themselves!).

    As any visitor to my blog will note, I am most thoroughly in favour of praying to the saints and angels – after all, they’re the bosom friends of God in heaven, filled with Divine charity, seeing all things in the Beatific Vision; and we know that the angels offer the saints’ prayers in heaven; so why not ask them to put in a good word for us still struggling here on earth?

    Why is this, then, so emotionally-charged an issue that Proddies still feel they must suspect Catholics of lustily bowing down before idols at every chance they get – why do they feel that asking another to intercede is somehow demeaning God Almighty?

  2. Past Elder says:

    Apology XXI ought to take care it.

    Hey, since I’m just cyber-talking to you, is this prayer?

  3. Joshua says:

    Is it that the term “prayer” is so associated by them with addressing God, the One to Whom alone they pray, such that the very verb is reserved for converse with the Deity, that Proddies get the creeps when Catholics speak of praying to the Blessed Virgin, et al.?

  4. Schütz says:

    PE: Is this prayer?

    Schütz: If it is, this is an answer to prayer.

  5. Schütz says:

    What passage are you thinking of in the Apology XXI, PE?

    Josh: “Is it that the term “prayer” is so associated by them with addressing God, the One to Whom alone they pray, such that the very verb is reserved for converse with the Deity, that Proddies get the creeps when Catholics speak of praying to the Blessed Virgin, et al.?”

    You got it. Of course, back in the good ol’ days, people would “pray” all sorts of people for all sorts of things, as in “I prithee to pass the salt”…

  6. L P Cruz says:


    If prayer is simply talking to another being, then it may be just that, but so it can be argued that prayer to the Budha is not a violation of the commandments.

    Would you agree? Since by your definition it is simply talking to another being.

    What about talking to the spirit of the dead?


  7. Joshua says:

    Well, clearly it would wicked to pray to the Buddha (note correct spelling), just as it would be most ill-advised to pray to the Devil.

    But we are talking about addressing the saints in heaven – who are not dead, but alive (we don’t believe in soul-sleep, LOL).

  8. Past Elder says:

    God bless me ten times.

    No, “pray” does not mean talk or talk to. It comes from precor, -ari, meaning to beg, primarily, or to ask, entreat, which is why modern definitions of pray connect it to worship.

    A precarius (the English cognate being obvious) position is one secured as the result of begging rather than of itself, depending as it does on some other power who could have made a different decision or perhaps may in the future.

    So, ya gonna just talk to them, beg or entreat them and if so whaddya gonna beg or entreat them to do? Or what? Precarious position indeed.

  9. Salvatore says:

    Why is this, then, so emotionally-charged an issue that Proddies still feel they must suspect Catholics of lustily bowing down before idols…

    Err … because we do?

    After all we don’t just pray to the Saints, we also venerate them. We honour their images, bow before them, kiss them, carry them in processions, make sacrificial offerings (candles, incense etc.) to them and so forth. I have always imagined that the complaints of Protestants are due their failure (inability?) to distinguish between the honour (dulia*) we give the Saints, and worship (latria) we give to God alone.

    None of which is particularly relevant to a couple of good Lutheran children at their prayers of course.


    * Hyperdulia in the case of Our Lady of course.

  10. Schütz says:

    Good on you, Salvatore (didn’t I see you in a film once…?). You are quite right. Once you add the “dulia” to the “praying” it does look suspiciously like “latria”. Especially when you add in the point that PE makes, that “to pray” means “to beg”, and that implies a degree of trust.

    Now, of course, for Lutherans, anything in which you put your trust is your God (cf. Luther’s definition of the 1st Commandment in the Small and Large Catechisms). Thus to trust in a saint or angel and to pray to them would look very much like idolatry.

    Except it isn’t, of course. I trust my father. I sometimes “pray” to him for help. I also honour him, as the 4th commandment tells me to (nb. the fourth commandment corresponds to the 1st commandment) with a kind of “dulia”. In fact, as I reflect upon it, these three – trust, prayer and honour – would have been given by any child or client or slave to any parent or patron or master in the past, and not be suspected in any sense of idolatry. Add in the fact that in many cultures you would have bowed down physically before all three.

    Of course, I would never thus “pray” to the Buddha and certainly never to Satan, because I do not honour or trust them.

    I do honour the saints and angels, for the sake of God’s great holiness, and I do trust them because God has given them to me as my companions and friends in the perfection of the communion of saints. And for this reason, I pray to them.

    And a final point, since some might confuse this (PE) with communicating with the spirits of the dead: As Josh says, the saints are alive, not dead. They are in Christ just as we are, and as nothing (not even death) separates us from the Love of Christ, we are all one in him. It is in the Mystery of Christ that the saints are able to hear our prayers. Superfluous, you might say. Yes. But God was ever generous with his gifts!

  11. Schütz says:

    Sorry, it was LPC, not PE, who raised the business about Buddha, Satan and the spirits of the dead.

  12. Louise says:

    I have always imagined that the complaints of Protestants are due their failure (inability?) to distinguish between the honour (dulia*) we give the Saints, and worship (latria) we give to God alone.

    And even the word “worship” (as when we call a magistrate or judge “your worship”) has different shades of meaning, so that if I were feeling particularly mischievous I might say to my protty friends, “why yes, I do worship the saints” (meaning “dulia” not “latria”).

  13. Past Elder says:

    What a crying shame those verses in his response to a question about how to pray about being sure you were clear on the whole dulia and latria thing have been lost!

  14. Joshua says:


    A more than usually gnomic utterance, PE.

    Brevity is good, but not at the expense of clarity, I say in charity.

  15. Joshua says:

    A useful parallel would be with the Chinese Rites controversy – in which it really is a question of where legitimate piety toward one’s ancestors changes into supersititious spirit-worship.

    A Chinese mate of mine was just talking about this last night: to bow respectfully before the tablet of ancestors’ names in filial devotion, fine, but to offer food before it, as if they live in the tablet and need nourishment, no! As I said, at home we’ve lots of old photos of dead rellies, and as I pass them I regard them with love and may even say a prayer for their eternal repose – but I wouldn’t imagine worshipping them.

  16. Past Elder says:

    Judas in the scriptorum.

    From the wheelchair: when Jesus was asked how his disciples should pray, did he go on about dulia and latria?

    Lovely lady dressed in blue,
    Teach us how to pray.
    God was once your little boy,
    And you know the way.

    Get Catholic, wouldja!

  17. Schütz says:

    I think I pointed out in my original post (or comment somewhere) that even the Catechism says very little about prayer to the saints – which is surprising, given how prevalent the practice is in Catholicism.

    I think the point is, and I grant this to you PE, that the primary meaning of “prayer” is “pray to God” and practically all the Church’s teaching on the matter of prayer is assumed to be on the matter of “prayer to God”.

    Which simply says that the matter of praying to the saints is of a different order entirely.

    On the other hand, there is absolutely nothing in the Scriptures suggesting that one should NOT pray to the saints. Which was the point of my original post.

  18. orrologion says:

    Lex orandi est lex credendi. Since the practice of prayer to the saints is relatively early – i.e., contemporaneous or earlier than the orthodox enunciations of the doctrines of both the Trinity and Christ – I would say that the lex orandi is pretty clear on the fact that we should pray to the saints. Anything else is explanation and a grasping after understanding.

  19. Past Elder says:

    I wish you guys would sound like Catholics for once! Damn. Catholic up!

    Then again in post-conciliar Catholicism that’s damn near impossible, but here goes, dulia, latria, honour, worship be damned:

    The problem with “praying to the saints” is in the phrase rather than the practice. It’s a bad phrase for a good practice. We don’t pray to the saints at all. We ask them to pray for us. And why not? We believe, being saints, they are living now, as alive as you or I, so asking one of them to pray for me is no different than asking you to pray for me, in fact, to not do so treats them as if they actually are dead.

    No more complicated than that.

    However, if the Protestant persists, then asknowledge that the practice can and does degenerate into a sort of unofficial polytheism in popular piety, but that is not the fault of the practice properly done itself nor an objection to it.

    Judas at chapter.

  20. Dan Woodring says:

    Thanks, Terry, for being such a good Roman Catholic and putting us all back on track. What would we do without you?

    It is only in modern times that the verb “to pray” has taken on, at least for many, an exclusively spiritual meaning, that is, discourse with God. You don’t have to go back too far to find the word used toward mere mortals, and if not mortals, than why not the immortal?

    I wrote about this on my blog: http://beatvsvir.blogspot.com/search/label/Invocation%20of%20the%20saints.

    What I find perplexing about the Lutheran argument (as expressed in the Confessions) is the rejection of the practice not because it is “forbidden” in the Scriptures, but because it is “not commanded.” This is a particular weak argument, for Lutherans allow many things that are neither commanded nor forbidden.

  21. orrologion says:

    In my more puckish moments I have been known to explain Protestant lack of belief in the power of the saints both to hear us and to act for us (through their prayer to and unity with God) to the fact that they have lost the working of miracles. They assume this is because God has stopped performing miracles, but attested miracles continue in the Orthodox Church, for sure (and not just the ‘children are a miracle’ kind of miracles, but Acts of the Apostles kinds of miracles). Since they have no experience of the miraculous, they don’t understand how a saint could do things that we regular ‘saints’ in the ‘priesthood of all believers’ can do, e.g., perform miracles, hear calls for help, pray more efficaciously than a sinner like me, etc.

    What’s really at issue is authority: Scripture alone (and Luther’s understanding of it) or also Tradition and the continuing sanctification and guidance of the Holy Spirit. The search for a sure foundation is laudable when so much of Christianity had been ‘developed’ in a way seemingly at odds from the faith attested to in Scripture and the Fathers, but a focus only on the foundation doesn’t give you the fortress; foundations alone are ruins.

  22. Salvatore says:

    Two quick points.

    … We don’t pray to the saints at all. We ask them to pray for us …

    Well, exactly! We ask (= pray) them to pray for us.

    … However, if the Protestant persists, then acknowledge that the practice can and does degenerate into a sort of unofficial polytheism in popular piety …

    No. Whilst some of the outer forms of popular piety might appear a little excessive to the outsider, and whilst the practitioners might not be able to articulate the difference between worship and veneration to our satisfaction; I believe that to them the difference is real and operative nonetheless. After all the idea that God is greater than his Saints (however venerable) is not such a subtle point.


  23. orrologion says:

    The need to distinguish between that which God does and that which I do is so odd to me. It reminds me of the layperson who is always saying “God willing” and “Thanks to God” in conversation. It’s a bit of an affectation – even though I often think in those terms myself.

    Anything any of us does is because God is doing it or allowing it.

    The lifeguard saved me is just like saying St. Xenia got me a job, or St. Anna helped my wife to conceive. The lifeguard only had his health, his ability, only saw me drowning, only helped me stay above water long enough, etc. because of God. To note otherwise is an affectation or quibbling or a preference for the abstract and academic over real, live flesh and blood reality. I can thank God and the lifeguard for the same thing in different ways without footnoting who has done what and in what order. Thanking the lifeguard takes nothing away from God; thanking God takes nothing away from the lifeguard.

    So, of course the saint himself hears my prayer and answers it. One need not necessarily participate in a game of telephone where I ask a saint to pray to God for me rather than me praying to God directly for some reason. The saint is able to answer my prayer because his life is prayer to God, communion with God, union with God in the God-man, Jesus Christ. To think otherwise is to have not thought deeply on the Incarnation of Christ and the ramifications of the christology of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. Truth be told triadology and christology in Protestantism are at best prelude to the ‘more important bits’ developed from parts of Paul within the context of a certain kind of late medieval scholasticism but focused primarily on Scripture and divorced from the lex orandi and consensus patrum (of course, the Orthodox would say that Rome had already started divorcement proceedings, so it would have been difficult for the northern Europeans to discern western theologoumenon from consensus patrum of the Church Universal especially since the Turks and Mongols stood in the way).

  24. Past Elder says:

    Flying Judas in the sacristy!

    Well, Dan, you’re nothing if not a quick study. Been a “Catholic” how many months now, and already you’re getting the hang of ignoring any sign that the station that took over the call sign in the 1960s is broadcasting on a different wavelength with w different format by making anything from the briadcasts of the prior management and format a personal issue of the one who brings it up.

    The issue of “praying to the saints” is indeed not so much that it is outright forbidden as it is not commanded, coupled with the fact that admit it or not, the practice often does become something one does in place of praying to the Intercessor God sent, Jesus, as if he who has given everything for us has to be persuaded to look on us favourably.

    Did you hear about the cowboy whose horse died and he was left to trek in the desert on foot? He thought he would never make it to a town, prayed to God for help, and passed out. An Indian came along, put him on his horse, took him to the saloon which he himself could not enter, then left. Later, revived, the man was telling his story, and when he got the part about the prayer, someone asked So did God help you? The man said, Hell no, some Indian came along and dropped me off here.

    (I’d say it was a Cherokee like some of my kids’ ancestors, but the text does not support that, and the American Southwest desert is not Cherokee land.)

  25. Joshua says:

    Orrologion gives a very fine and laudable explanation, which as it happens chimes perfectly with the scholastic axiom that the First Cause, and also the secondary causes, of any act are equally its causes.

    I do wish PE wouldn’t have a go at people over his bugbear that the Church now isn’t the Church then ergo we must flee to the Jews, and then recommit to Christ and become some incomprehensible Lutheran. Bleating on and on tiresomely is rude.

  26. Past Elder says:

    Hey Dan, you reading Joshua? This is the next step. Once, in order to preserve the illusion that there is no hermeneutic of disconnect in the RCC and post-conciliar “Catholicism” is Catholicism, you get the hang of dismissing any evidence to the contrary as a function of the experience of whoever brings it up, rather than bringing up what the RCC taught, then you proceed to characterise it based on your experience of it — tiresome, rude.

    Fits perfectly for a religion built on phenomenology rather than the Gospel.

    Give it a few more months.

  27. Schütz says:

    PE: “The problem with “praying to the saints” is in the phrase rather than the practice. It’s a bad phrase for a good practice. We don’t pray to the saints at all. We ask them to pray for us. And why not? We believe, being saints, they are living now, as alive as you or I, so asking one of them to pray for me is no different than asking you to pray for me, in fact, to not do so treats them as if they actually are dead.”

    Were you saying that as a demonstration of “real Catholicism” (which you have long since given up) or were you saying that as something you actually believe and practice now?

  28. Past Elder says:

    The former.

    It’s how the matter would be addressed to someone inquiting about it. The closest it would have come to all this above is adding a discussion about worship as distinct from veneration.

    I actually last used it as the latter when the topic came up having a pizza with someone interested in coverting, though by this time it was the new church. Well aware that anything from the old church is suspect if not suppressed by the new church, I proceeded nonetheless to address “praying” to the saints.

    The person later did convert. This is the one the new church determined did not need confirmation since now that we know baptism and confirmation are two aspects of the same thing since the person was baptised Methodist the Methodist confirmation stands and only a reception in needed.

  29. orrologion says:

    PE, I think you are right that the regular and popular understandings of what the RCC was prior to Vatican II were massively disrupted – disconnected. When you look at the history of the church as a whole – even through the lens of Rome’s self-understanding, which I don’t agree with being Orthodox – there really isn’t a “hermeneutic of disconnect”. It is only if one assumes that the Church is static and unchanging in most of its facets that one gets vertigo when things change. Change has been part of the continuity of the Church. In this sense, Vatican II was a return to a more normal, historical understanding of the Church as Church – in many ways “closer” to Orthodoxy than the pre-conciliar Church you seem to long for (broken hearts and hurt are signs of having truly loved and trusted).

    Of course, the arguments for a hermeneutic of continuity make perfect sense if the Pope is infallible and the voice of Christ on earth. The papal office is the ‘proof’ of continuity. Of course, from the perspective of Orthodoxy, this causes all sorts of intellectual contortions in trying to show that the Pope was driving or approving all of the changes and developing and maturation in the Church Universal when the Pope often had little real involvement with the churches outside of the West – and even there he had troubles getting people to listen to him. The Orthodox understanding of ecclesiology as sobornost (conciliarity) is more in line, to me, with the facts of history (apart from Rome’s own statements regarding her own preeminence) and perhaps this is why the ‘disconnect’ post-Vatican II doesn’t seem like it need necessarily be as earth-shattering as it has been.

  30. Past Elder says:

    Hey thanks, orrologion.

    Only one correction, but a big one. I don’t long for the pre-conciliar church. Even if one could somehow flip a switch and return overnight to what I knew, I would not go back, I would remain Lutheran. Now, I am glad there was a Vatican II, because without it I may never have come to know the falseness of what I believed.

    As to your comment itself, I have never said the church is or should be static. The church I knew was itself the product of change. And I quite agree that change is constant in the church. The question is not change per se, but change to what. It is the “to what” that is the problem, not change itself. The particular “to what” of Vatican II was false by the “from what” from whence it came, thereby, within as you point out that mindset, invalidating the “from what” too.

    Re that, I’ve had many Orthodox characterise the Reformation as a distinctly Western attempt at solving a distinctly Western problem. Hence, no Reformation in the East. No Vatican II either. Neither needed. I think, were I Orthodox, I would see Vatican II much as you do. And, among the voices pressing for the “changes”, were those who saw it just that way.

    So at what point then does the Roman Church become Orthodox, Western Rite? I know there is such a thing as a body, we have two “Antiochan” parishes here in town, but I don’t mean the question literally that way.

    Btw, we have converts to Orthodoxy too, and while I would disagree with the conversion as I would with the Tiber swimmers, in no case would I dispute that what they have found is indeed Orthodoxy.

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