Ignore the ceremony that surrounded it and you may find that the recent canonisation of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII had more in common with Mormon religious impulses than you may at first have thought. Ignore also what Rahner and Vorgrimler call the “unbridled sentimentality and religious trash”* to which we all succumb and instead judge the veneration of saints in Catholicism as generously as you can. Herewith a quick comparison of veneration, intercession, and canonisation in the Catholic and Mormon traditions.
To venerate a saint is “always to praise and glorify God, since the quality of the saint which is recognized as worthy of imitation was the gift of God’s grace” (Rahner and Vorgrimler). The saint is therefore the concrete manifestation of the holiness that all Christians can achieve as a reflection of God’s own goodness. Saints have “the image of God engraven upon their countenances” (Alma 5:19). To venerate them is at once to praise God’s goodness and to aspire to reflecting it in one’s own life. The veneration of Mormon “saints,” mostly apostles and prophets, living and dead, is a major feature of lived Mormonism today. Note that veneration is not adoration: only God is worthy of such.
Because Christ is the great Intercessor, many Protestants are uneasy with the concept of the intercession of saints. One prays to the Father through Christ, and that is that. However, this is to misunderstand the nature of prayer. Prayers of adoration are only for the Godhead, but to pray for intercession to the saints is simply to ask them to carry your prayers to God alongside your own petitions. Mormons constantly ask others to pray for them, suggesting a belief that other people’s prayers can somehow make the prayer more efficacious. The temple roll is a prime example of this and suggests that the saintliness of temple patrons can speed our petitions to God.
There is also the sense that the ones we venerate — apostles and prophets mostly — have special access to God’s favour. Thus young Christal Methvin wished for President Monson to bless her, despite the fact that this was within the remit of countless other (un-venerated) priesthood holders. Similarly, I know people who have access to General Authorities who take special comfort in knowing that these men pray for them. This is intercession; Catholics seem simply to be saying that this practice extends beyond the grave. There may be a sense in which this is also true in Mormonism. The temple roll might also be drawing upon the holiness of the righteous dead. There is also the belief that angels are or will be human beings, thus Jacob demanding a blessing from an angel (a saintly human) is ontologically akin to a Catholic asking a dead John Paul II (a saintly human) for a blessing or a Mormon asking Thomas S. Monson (a saintly human) for the same. The blessings are always God’s, of course.
Sunday’s canonisation was just a ritual selection of two human manifestations — as the Roman Catholic Church sees it – of God’s countenance. The rituals and rhythms of the veneration of saints in Catholicism are not aesthetically Mormon, which is why they may seem so alien, but theologically, they are not. Mormons ritually select their saints in different ways, mainly through the recitation of canonical myths. That we venerate them and hope for their intercession seems fairly uncontroversial to me.
* Rahner and Vorgrimler, Theological Dictionary, s.v “Veneration of Saints.”