Venice is full of sculpture and paintings depicting Christian saints. Looking at this art makes the Protestant Reformation’s reaction against saints more understandable. A fine line separates worshipping a saint from pointing to the example of that saint as a person who lived the Christian life writ large.
The Roman Catholic Church’s insistence on a deceased Christian performing two miracles before being designated a saint further blurs that distinction. If, as the Christian Church, has long taught, God’s people – the living and the dead – form a single community, then praying for the dead and asking them to pray for us makes sense (cf. Ethical Musings Thoughts on Grieving).
However, postulating that a saint has more credibility or influence with God than does an ordinary person reduces prayer to an influence peddling scheme in which who you know carries disproportionate weight. This suggests that God is akin to an earthly monarch, swayed by friendship, loyalty, good works, etc. This is just bad theology.
Two factors helped to distort the role saints played within Roman Catholicism. First, following the Council of Chalcedon, Jesus became progressively more exalted, less grounded in human reality, and, therefore, less accessible in the thoughts and spiritual lives of most Christians.
Second, a tendency developed within the Roman Church to allow only priests to receive the transubstantiated bread and wine that the Church taught was the body and blood of Christ. In part, this move happened because the Church wanted to prevent people from sinning by wrongly communing. Before Vatican II, the norm was for only the priest to receive the wine. One radical change of the English Reformation that birthed Anglicanism was to insist that priest commune with the consecrated bread and wine and then to offer both to all confirmed members of the Church. In lieu of receiving Holy Communion, the Roman Church encouraged the veneration of the consecrated host by clergy and laity. These changes made Jesus more distant and, implicitly, the saints closer to the lives of ordinary Christians.
In the New Testament, the word saint denotes a Christian. Honoring saints who have lived the Christian life writ large affords multiple role models, encouraging people by demonstrating that the Jesus path does not represent an unattainable ideal. If one accepts the possibility of life after death, praying for the dead and soliciting their prayers for us makes sense, expressing the bonds that unite God’s people in spite of death without presuming to exert greater influence on God. An omniscient God knows what is best and will find prayers, from the living and the dead, unpersuasive.
Art – sculpture, paintings, and other media – that chronicles a saint’s life can edify and inspire without becoming the occasion of idolatry. But too much emphasis on the saints can obscure the light from the one whom they sought.
The art of sainthood – whether in Venice or in one’s own life – is to be an icon, a door, a window that invites observers to enter more deeply into the light, to walk more vigorously the path of life abundant.