Continuing the series of posts responding to Pastor Pete's numerous objections to the Catholic faith (start at the bottom of the link and work your way up) brings us to this rather common one:
I don’t believe in the deity of Mary nor the saints. This one will require further explanation. If a young child asks how God can hear millions of people pray at the same time, our likely answer will be because He is God, He is deity. But I find no answer how Mary or the saints could possess this omnipotent power, except to deify them, which I am compelled to reject.
Let's first begin by stating unequivocally that Catholics don't believe in the deity of Mary or the saints either. From the Catechism as to the particularity of Mary's humanity:
Jesus has only God as Father. "He was never estranged from the Father because of the human nature which he assumed. . . He is naturally Son of the Father as to his divinity and naturally son of his mother as to his humanity, but properly Son of the Father in both natures."
Fr. Joe at Busted Halo expounds:
Devotion to Mary goes back a long way in the Catholic church. But Catholics do not believe that Mary is divine and we don’t pray to Mary. God, made flesh in Jesus and present in the Holy Spirit, is the only One to whom we pray.
We do believe that Mary holds a special place among the saints of the church, and that the saints are part of a community of faith and love that doesn't end with death. This “communion of saints” includes both the living and dead. We don’t “pray to” the saints either, but we believe that we can ask those who now live with God to pray for us, just as we pray for persons who have died.
Catholics don’t worship Mary; rather, we honor her. We honor Mary as the mother of God, as the first disciple of Jesus, and as the mother of the church. All three of these titles have their origins in the fact that in Mary’s life the Word of God became flesh and blood and that is the vocation to which every Christian is called — to live in such a way that God’s generous compassion becomes alive in our flesh and blood, in in our words and actions.
We look to Mary as a model in whom we can trust, and as a mother who supports and nurtures our own journeys of faith. Turning to her as the first of Christians, we ask her to pray for us.
As to the question on whether or not Mary and/or the saints can hear our petitions, I found this from Robert H. Brom, former Bishop of San Diego, that I think answers the question more than adequately:
As Scripture indicates, those in heaven are aware of the prayers of those on earth. This can be seen, for example, in Revelation 5:8, where John depicts the saints in heaven offering our prayers to God under the form of "golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints." But if the saints in heaven are offering our prayers to God, then they must be aware of our prayers. They are aware of our petitions and present them to God by interceding for us.
Some might try to argue that in this passage the prayers being offered were not addressed to the saints in heaven, but directly to God. Yet this argument would only strengthen the fact that those in heaven can hear our prayers, for then the saints would be aware of our prayers even when they are not directed to them!
In any event, it is clear from Revelation 5:8 that the saints in heaven do actively intercede for us. We are explicitly told by John that the incense they offer to God are the prayers of the saints. Prayers are not physical things and cannot be physically offered to God. Thus the saints in heaven are offering our prayers to God mentally. In other words, they are interceding.
Some objections to the concept of prayer to the saints betray restricted notions of heaven. One comes from anti-Catholic Loraine Boettner:
"How, then, can a human being such as Mary hear the prayers of millions of Roman Catholics, in many different countries, praying in many different languages, all at the same time?
"Let any priest or layman try to converse with only three people at the same time and see how impossible that is for a human being. . . . The objections against prayers to Mary apply equally against prayers to the saints. For they too are only creatures, infinitely less than God, able to be at only one place at a time and to do only one thing at a time.
"How, then, can they listen to and answer thousands upon thousands of petitions made simultaneously in many different lands and in many different languages? Many such petitions are expressed, not orally, but only mentally, silently. How can Mary and the saints, without being like God, be present everywhere and know the secrets of all hearts?" (Roman Catholicism, 142-143).
If being in heaven were like being in the next room, then of course these objections would be valid. A mortal, unglorified person in the next room would indeed suffer the restrictions imposed by the way space and time work in our universe. But the saints are not in the next room, and they are not subject to the time/space limitations of this life.
This does not imply that the saints in heaven therefore must be omniscient, as God is, for it is only through God’s willing it that they can communicate with others in heaven or with us. And Boettner’s argument about petitions arriving in different languages is even further off the mark. Does anyone really think that in heaven the saints are restricted to the King’s English? After all, it is God himself who gives the gift of tongues and the interpretation of tongues. Surely those saints in Revelation understand the prayers they are shown to be offering to God.
The problem here is one of what might be called a primitive or even childish view of heaven. It is certainly not one on which enough intellectual rigor has been exercised. A good introduction to the real implications of the afterlife may be found in Frank Sheed’s book Theology and Sanity, which argues that sanity depends on an accurate appreciation of reality, and that includes an accurate appreciation of what heaven is really like. And once that is known, the place of prayer to the saints follows.
Some may grant that the previous objections to asking the saints for their intercession do not work and may even grant that the practice is permissible in theory, yet they may question it on other grounds, asking why one would want to ask the saints to pray for one. "Why not pray directly to Jesus?" they ask.
The answer is: "Of course one should pray directly to Jesus!" But that does not mean it is not also a good thing to ask others to pray for one as well. Ultimately, the "go-directly-to-Jesus" objection boomerangs back on the one who makes it: Why should we ask any Christian, in heaven or on earth, to pray for us when we can ask Jesus directly? If the mere fact that we can go straight to Jesus proved that we should ask no Christian in heaven to pray for us then it would also prove that we should ask no Christian on earth to pray for us.
Here's to hoping Pastor Pete, and others like him, are prayerfully considering each of these responses, not, unless God wills it, so that they might become Catholic but minimally so that they might know more about what has become for me a deep and so very rich faith.
Carry on dear reader.