Few things, it has been said, rival the power of prayer.
So when facing life’s difficult questions, the faithful often turn to prayer in their quest for answers. After all, praying is a practice as old as religion itself.
And, like leaning on a close family member in a time of need, intercessory prayer is a practice of faith and comfort employed by Catholics in need of help. The premise is straightforward — when we need assistance, we call upon someone familiar to deliver our petitions to our creator.
“Intercession is a tradition that fills our lives with beauty,” says Dr. Cecilia Gonzalez-Andrieu, an associate professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “It’s a reminder that God is with us all the time.”
Specifically in Catholicism, intercession of the saints involves asking a saint to advocate on your behalf to God. This form of prayer is a testament to the power of faith, experts say.
“Intercession of the saints recognizes that the saints have a special place before God,” says Father Michael Witczak, an associate professor of liturgical studies at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. “When we intercede with the saints, we’re asking them to pray to God on our behalf. We can ask God directly or we can ask the saints to plead for us, but only God gives any benefit that occurs.”
Intercessory prayer goes back to ancient times. Culturally, the practice likely stems from the ancient practice of patronage that was the basis of social life, Father Michael says.
“Someone ahead of you socially would advance your cause and you would do the same for someone below you,” he says.
Catholics distinguish among three basic forms of prayer: praise, thanksgiving, and intercession, Father Michael adds.
“Praise acknowledges God as creator; thanksgiving responds to our awareness that we have received a gift,” he says. “Intercession asks God to do something for us.”
Asking for intercession—not necessarily from a recognized saint—is an act many faithful practice in times of need. Often, asking a departed loved one for help can be easier than turning to a living friend. Many pray to deceased relatives to advocate on their behalf before God and pray directly to saints for specific requests.
“Intercessory prayer goes along with Christian traditional ideas that the world of this moment and the world that comes after death aren’t that different,” Gonzalez-Andrieu says, who also authored of the book Bridge to Wonder: Art as a Gospel of Beauty. “The most important aspect is that those who have come before us have a force with us and they are in God’s presence as saints — they are bridges between us and God.”
Popular saints that often are the target of intercessory prayers are Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers; Saint Anthony, the patron saint of lost and stolen articles; and Saint Jude, the patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes.
The Blessed Virgin Mary is a popular subject of requests for intercession. Indeed, Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico and the Americas, is among the most famous intercessors, Gonzalez-Andrieu says.
Those who pray to her often ask for courage and perseverance.
“Her role is literally to bring Christ to us,” says Gonzalez-Andrieu. “She intercedes on behalf of the broken and allows them to survive and thrive in the face of the powerful.”
Praying to a saint to advocate on your behalf offers a form of comfort to the faithful and is similar to praying to a community of loved ones, Gonzalez-Andrieu adds.
“Intercessory prayer is another way we witness the depths of our faith,” she says. However, he adds that “magical thinking,” or believing that our thoughts and prayers will automatically translate into direct action from God, can make faith fragile.
“Sometimes God’s answer is no,” Gonzalez-Andrieu adds.
In the Catholic faith, intercessory prayer is rooted in Scripture. Intercession abounds in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Intercessory prayers have been described in the Book of Genesis when Abraham prays for Sodom. Examples of intercession are also described in accounts of the Last Supper and the Resurrection.
“The idea of intercession is very uniquely ours in the sense that we have Christ,” Gonzalez-Andrieu says. “Jesus Christ is unique in that he has a dual nature — he is both human and divine.”
Intercessory prayer, however, is not necessarily exclusive to Christianity or the Catholic faith. Although intercession varies among different faiths and communities, including Judaism and Islam, the underlying beliefs remain the same.
“We all coincide to the idea that we can pray and put ourselves before God,” Gonzalez-Andrieu says. “We can pray for ourselves, and we can pray for the world. Prayer changes us by forming us into more faithful and loving human beings. It reminds us that the Kingdom of God is a lot bigger than we can see.”