It occurred to me this past week, while celebrating St. George the Martyr (or Mega Martyr, as he is known among the effervescent Byzantines), that friendship with a patron saint, on one’s name day (or “onomastico”) is a practice that needs revival.
There are friends and acquaintances, but it is a special privilege to have a heavenly friend as a companion and encourager. It is helpful, but not necessary, to know much about what they did when they were alive here.
In the case of George, little is known, and when the unknown bits are embellished with fanciful legends such as stabbing dragons, they can seem remote. But think of an athlete, who has a native talent for some sport, and how a coach can protect and develop it. In that sense, albeit in a strained analogy, the patron saint is available to help.
There are some, called fundamentalists, who object to the whole economy of saintly intercessions. The suffix “-ist” can distort a good thing. An artist well serves art as a pianist is why there are pianos — but race and sex and things spiritual are not the same as a racist or sexist or spiritualist.
Fundamentals in religion are the cornerstone of faith, but a fundamentalist misses the fundamental point of asking saints to pray for us, as if that compromised Christ is the sole mediator between man and God. That uniqueness is the essence of all the Church’s prayers offered “through Christ our Lord.”
The faithful certainly can pray directly to Jesus, but the Lord also wants us to do so not as a solo exercise but as part of his whole Church.
If much is not known about the saints — they know us.
He ordered us to pray for others (Matthew 5:44). St. James said that “the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effect,” which is why St. Paul urged “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high position, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
The saints in heaven are not remote from those who have been baptized. That is true even if our chapels and churches and homes seem far different from the golden environment of the eternal realms, where they “fall down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Revelations 5:8).
Meanwhile, if much is not known about the saints, they know us. In the case of St. George, I expect he wants us to know that dragons are real, in the form of the cruelties and vices that afflict mankind, and that the saints can help us to slay the passion and pride of those dragons through the power of the King of Saints: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace” (John 16:33).
Fr. George William Rutler is a Catholic priest and the pastor of the Church of St. Michael in Manhattan. This article from his parish church bulletin is used by permission.