On the veneration of saints

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.

On veneration

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.

On intercession

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.

On canonisation

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.”


  1. “Mormons ritually select their saints in different ways, mainly through the recitation of canonical myths.”
    Please provide an example!

  2. About intercession – I’ve never been comfortable with the idea that if more people pray for something/someone, then God is more apt to grant their request. Or if the prayer is done in a special way or by an important person, God listens better.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    I’ve heard of Mormons speaking to their dead kindred, or having visions of their dead kindred. And as you say, the idea of dead people/angels is fairly well Mormon.

  4. Mark, I guess I agree.
    DM, too many to count.

  5. Stapers,
    Find me an example of the dead aiding the living, for the living’s benefit (i.e. not genealogy), at the petition of the living, and I will buy you a drink in The Unicorn.

  6. J. Stapley says:

    Guardian angels used to be standard fair in Mormonism. Not so much anymore. Off the top of my head, BY had a near death experience and JS appeared to him and showed him a vision. But that is sort of institutional. I seem to remember the concept of help from beyond the veil, but I’d have to do some digging for specific examples.

  7. Mild barley drinks await, J . . .

  8. it's a series of tubes says:

    Find me an example of the dead aiding the living, for the living’s benefit (i.e. not genealogy), at the petition of the living, and I will buy you a drink in The Unicorn

    Though I won’t share details, I have an example in my immediate family, absent the petition of the living because the event unfolded too quickly.

  9. Listening to NPR today I learned that there are disputes within Islam about Saints as well–that a branch called Barelvism with 200 million adherents who venerate and believe in intercession of dead holy people–saints. They are regarded as heretics by certain other branches of Islam. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/15/islam-pakistan-barelvi-saudi-wahhabi

  10. Fascinating post. Many LDS would be uncomfortable with what you propose, but as one of the High Priest group instructors, this year’s lesson manual abounds with such practices. (Could be that since Joseph Fielding Smith was Hyrum’s grandson, he had a strong penchant for Joseph Smith being a “saint” in nearly every sense of that word).

    I look at the titles of the lessons, with JS being venerated weekly. I also provided the quote that every person that enters the Celestial Kingdom will go through Joseph Smith. If that isn’t intercession, I’m not sure what else qualifies. I agree that the idea that temple rolls and ward fasts are certainly ways that LDS try to curry more favor with God.

    Other than outright praying to Joseph Smith or other church leaders, I believe that indeed we are theologically the same as our Catholic brothers/sisters with respect to “Saints”.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for putting this in such a sympathetic frame where I, a lifelong Mormon, can better understand it and even relate to the practice. Very interesting.

  12. This was exactly my realization when I started studying Orthodox theology regarding intercession of the saints.

    Mark, the issue of “more people praying = more likely that God will listen,” I think, is the result of a bit of a misunderstanding, resulting from a Western Protestant-derived salvation theology and a more communitarian one (Catholic/Orthodox). For the Orthodox (and I’m not sure how Catholics say the following, but I’m sure they’d endorse it to an extent), God doesn’t save individuals, He saves the Church. Salvation and Grace happen in the context of the Heavenly community. As such, God wants us to pray for each other because His Grace flows through the community as it works together toward salvation. Think about the hymn A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief and you’ll see this point a little better, I think. We are the channels whereby God’s Grace is delivered. God could save us all individually but He prefers to save us through each other.

  13. I meant to say, *a clash* between Protestant salvation theology and communitarian salvation theology.

  14. Hedgehog says:

    “Mormons constantly ask others to pray for them”
    More so than protestants? It seems to be the implication of your paragraph that it isn’t a protestant thing. But I’ve long been aware of protestant prayer groups, from university on. My kids attend a CofE cathedral school, and parents hold a prayer group once a month at the school. We can even email the parent running the group if there are people/issues we’d like the group to pray for.

  15. No, I don’t mean to imply that Mormons do this more than Protestants. My point is that Mormons, Protestants, and Catholics all enlist the help of others to raise their prayers to God. This is intercession. Catholics saints are just dead others!

  16. melodynew says:

    This is FABulous! Thank you for illustrating this so succinctly. I agree with the crux of your assertion. Where I differ is in the idea that we place names on temple prayer rolls believing “that the saintliness of temple patrons can speed our petitions to God.” Nope. I don’t think those folks are all necessarily saintly. No way. Some of them probably even lied to get there.

    When I place a name on temple prayer rolls, it’s a matter of pure volume of prayers, spiritual energy, and faith. It’s not about the relative faithfulness of those praying. I feel like I’m enlisting an army of (who knows how righteous, but, hey, at least they are willing to pray for someone they don’t know) sisters and brothers on behalf of a loved-one. I would feel just as comforted and confident if I asked a group of people in the subway to pray for a loved one. Some of them would do it with sincerity, some would not. Anyway, other than this minor point, everything you wrote here rings true for me. Thanks again.

  17. I’ll push back a little, Melody. There is a sense that the faith of the patrons *should* be more “saintly” than that of ordinary folk. There’s the recommend itself as well as the attempt to remove ill feeling from the circle. I agree that this does not guarantee any saintliness in practice, but the idea is there. If I were a Catholic I might say the same about the saints — no doubt many of them were scoundrels! But that’s not the point.

  18. Saints as dead “others” makes so much sense, I’m almost upset I didn’t figure it out myself.

    Now I’m going to pick out my Mormon guardian angel.

  19. Interesting. My TBM relatives all running to the their nearest respective temple to put names on the prayer roll has to be viewed similarly to the requests for intercession by St. Maria Goretti or Teresa de Avila.

  20. Thokozile says:

    “Find me an example of the dead aiding the living, for the living’s benefit (i.e. not genealogy), at the petition of the living, and I will buy you a drink in The Unicorn.”

    The way Elder Scott talks about his wife comes to mind, “And at critical times in my life when I need help, I can feel impressions come through the veil in such a real way that often I just [think,] ‘Thank you, Jeanene.'”

  21. Bingo!

  22. I guess they are dead others. In Japan, beliefs tend towards seeking help or intercession of ancestors.

    Thokozile’s comment reminds me when member astronaut Don Lind visited our stake getting on for 30 years ago, He mentioned being aware of his father whilst in space providing guidance on how to fix things in the space shuttle ( possibly FIL, but I think father), apparently he’d been good at that whilst alive.

  23. On the subject of saints vs. scoundrels, I think the point is that we’re ALL scoundrels. And it’s when someone comes to us and asks us to pray for them (or any other act of selflessness or sacrifice), and we do, sincerely, that we are, for those brief moments, saints. To the point above, as we do that more and more, as we make our focus more on others’ needs, grace moves into us through our association with others. And as that grace grows, the church and its members becomes more saintly.

  24. Thanks for the insight and interesting post.
    Like DM, I am also unclear on “Mormons ritually select their saints in different ways, mainly through the recitation of canonical myths.” Please explain or give an example. I assume you’re talking about our treating apostles and prophets as our saints. By recitation of canonical myths, do you mean the way we promise to not speak evil of them?
    How would female saints, such as certain venerated members of past general RS presidencies, fit into that?

  25. Don’t forget about the veneration of pioneers [“Honor, praise, and veneration to the founders we revere!”] because all pioneers were saintly, of course.

  26. “Mormons ritually select their saints in different ways, mainly through the recitation of canonical myths.”

    On his way home from his first mission to Hawaii, Joseph F. Smith and his companions ran into a group of extremists when they camped one evening. The leader of the group swore he would kill anyone who was a Mormon. Pointing his gun at Joseph F. he demanded, “Are you a ‘Mormon’?” Expecting fully for the gun to discharge, nonetheless he answered, “Yes, siree; dyed in the wool; true blue, through and through.” The answer, given boldly and without hesitation, completely disarmed the belligerent man, and in bewilderment all he could do was shake the young man’s hand and praise him for his courage. The men then rode off and did not harm them further (see Smith, comp., Life of Joseph F. Smith, 189).

    “St. George itself was named in honor of Elder George A. Smith, an early LDS Church apostle and first counselor to President Brigham Young. Although Smith did not participate in the town’s settlement, he personally selected most of the company of the pioneers of 1861,” Bart C. Anderson, states in the “Utah History Encyclopedia”

    St. George is also not be the only Mormon settlement named after a “Saint.” There are at least two more:
    St. David, Ariz., located southeast of Tucson, was named in honor of David Patten Kimball. He was the presiding LDS Church authority in the area, from 1881-82.

    According to the “Utah History Encyclopedia,” St. Charles, Idaho — located on the northwest side of Bear Lake — was named after Elder Charles C. Rich, a Mormon apostle. He was one of the first early settlers. In 1864 Brigham Young honored Rich by naming Rich County, Utah, and the town of St. Charles, after him.
    (Deseret News, 8 Jul 2007)

  27. Brilliant.

  28. Syphax has it right about how God saves the Church and individuals are meant to be channels of grace and salvation for each other. This is a belief that Catholics and Orthodox Christians hold. St. Therese of Liseaux expounded upon it best.

    “Oh! What mysteries will be revealed to us later… How often have I thought that I perhaps owe all the graces showered upon me to the earnest prayer of a little soul whom I shall know only in Heaven. It is God’s will that in this world by means of prayer Heavenly treasures should be imparted by souls one to another, so that when they reach the Fatherland they may love one another with a love born of gratitude, with an affection far, far exceeding the most ideal family affection upon earth.

    There, we shall meet with no indifferent looks, because all the Saints will be indebted to each other.

    No envious glances will be seen; the happiness of every one of the elect will be the happiness of all. With the Martyrs we shall be like to the Martyrs; with the Doctors we shall be as the Doctors; with the Virgins, as the Virgins; and just as the members of a family are proud of one another, so shall we be of our brethren, without the least jealousy.

    Who knows even if the joy we shall experience in beholding the glory of the great Saints, and knowing that by a secret disposition of Providence we have contributed thereunto, who knows if this joy will not be as intense and sweeter perhaps, than the happiness they will themselves possess.

    And do you not think that on their side the great Saints, seeing what they owe to quite little souls, will love them with an incomparable love? Delightful and surprising will be the friendships found there – I am sure of it. The favored companion of an Apostle or a great Doctor of the Church, will perhaps be a young shepherd lad; and a simple little child may be the intimate friend of a Patriarch. Oh! how I long to dwell in that Kingdom of Love…”

  29. Now that we have a temple in St. Paul, Minnesota, we even have a temple named after a traditional Catholic saint. Of course, Paul is recognized by all Christian traditions, not just Catholics, but the reason that this temple is named after “Saint Paul” not “the apostle Paul” is due to the naming of the town, after a chapel to Saint Paul established by a Catholic father who settled there in order to minister to the Catholic French-Canadian settlers. (I know, not really the point, and of course, a temple named after a saint is more than a little different than a shrine to a saint. But President Hinckley did like to jokingly point out the fact that this is the only temple in the church that is named after a Catholic Saint, and more seriously, he liked to point out that it is the only one named after a New Testament apostle).