The Christians of the early Church did not only clearly recognize the biblical teaching that those in heaven can and do intercede for the living, but they also applied this teaching in their own daily prayer life. Below are the testimonies of the early witnesses of faith:
“[The Shepherd said:] ‘But those who are weak and slothful in prayer, hesitate to ask anything from the Lord; but the Lord is full of compassion, and gives without fail to all who ask him. But you, [Hermas,] having been strengthened by the holy angel [you saw], and having obtained from him such intercession, and not being slothful, why do not you ask of the Lord understanding, and receive it from him?’” (The Shepherd 3:5:4 [A.D. 80]).
Hyppolytus, presbyter of Rome
No sleep will give them rest; no night will soothe them; no death will deliver them from punishment; no voice of interceding friends will profit them. For neither are the righteous seen by them any longer, nor are they worthy of remembrance (Against Plato, On the Cause of the Universe par 3 [A.D. 170-236])
Clement of Alexandria, theologian
“In this way is he [the true Christian] always pure for prayer. He also prays in the society of angels, as being already of angelic rank, and he is never out of their holy keeping; and though he pray alone, he has the choir of the saints standing with him [in prayer]” (Miscellanies 7:12 [A.D. 208]).
“But not the high priest [Christ] alone prays for those who pray sincerely, but also the angels . . . as also the souls of the saints who have already fallen asleep” (Prayer 11 [A.D. 233]).
Cyprian, bishop of Carthage
“Let us remember one another in concord and unanimity. Let us on both sides [of death] always pray for one another. Let us relieve burdens and afflictions by mutual love, that if one of us, by the swiftness of divine condescension, shall go hence first, our love may continue in the presence of the Lord, and our prayers for our brethren and sisters not cease in the presence of the Father’s mercy” (Letters 56:5 [A.D. 253]).
First Martyrs of Rome
“Atticus, sleep in peace, secure in your safety, and pray anxiously for our sins” (funerary inscription near St. Sabina’s in Rome [A.D. 300]).
“Pray for your parents, Matronata Matrona. She lived one year, fifty-two days” (ibid.).
“Mother of God, [listen to] my petitions; do not disregard us in adversity, but rescue us from danger” (Rylands Papyrus 3 [A.D. 350]).
Methodius, bishop of Olympos in Lycia
“Hail to you for ever, Virgin Mother of God, our unceasing joy, for to you do I turn again. You are the beginning of our feast; you are its middle and end; the pearl of great price that belongs to the kingdom; the fat of every victim, the living altar of the Bread of Life [Jesus]. Hail, you treasure of the love of God. Hail, you fount of the Son’s love for man . . . You gleamed, sweet gift-bestowing Mother, with the light of the sun; you gleamed with the insupportable fires of a most fervent charity, bringing forth in the end that which was conceived of you . . . making manifest the mystery hidden and unspeakable, the invisible Son of the Father—the Prince of Peace, who in a marvelous manner showed himself as less than all littleness” (Oration on Simeon and Anna 14 [A.D. 305]).
“Therefore, we pray [ask] you, the most excellent among women, who glories in the confidence of your maternal honors, that you would unceasingly keep us in remembrance. O holy Mother of God, remember us, I say, who make our boast in you, and who in august hymns celebrate the memory, which will ever live, and never fade away” (ibid.).
“And you also, O honored and venerable Simeon, you earliest host of our holy religion, and teacher of the resurrection of the faithful, do be our patron and advocate with that Savior God, whom you were deemed worthy to receive into your arms. We, together with you, sing our praises to Christ, who has the power of life and death, saying, ‘You are the true Light, proceeding from the true Light; the true God, begotten of the true God’” (ibid.).
Cyril of Jerusalem, theologian
“Then [during the Eucharistic prayer] we make mention also of those who have already fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition . . . ” (Catechetical Lectures 23:9 [A.D. 350]).
Hilary, bishop of Poitiers
“To those who wish to stand [in God’s grace], neither the guardianship of saints nor the defenses of angels are wanting” (Commentary on the Psalms 124:5:6 [A.D. 365]).
Ephraim the Syrian, theologian
“You victorious martyrs who endured torments gladly for the sake of the God and Savior, you who have boldness of speech toward the Lord himself, you saints, intercede for us who are timid and sinful men, full of sloth, that the grace of Christ may come upon us, and enlighten the hearts of all of us so that we may love him” (Commentary on Mark [A.D. 370]).
“Remember me, you heirs of God, you brethren of Christ; supplicate the Savior earnestly for me, that I may be freed through Christ from him that fights against me day by day” (The Fear at the End of Life [A.D. 370]).
Basil the Great, Greek bishop of Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia, Asia Minor
“By the command of your only-begotten Son we communicate with the memory of your saints . . . by whose prayers and supplications have mercy upon us all, and deliver us for the sake of your holy name” (Liturgy of St. Basil [A.D. 373]).
Pectorius of Autun
“Aschandius, my father, dearly beloved of my heart, with my sweet mother and my brethren, remember your Pectorius in the peace of the Fish [Christ]” (Epitaph of Pectorius [A.D. 375]).
Gregory of Nazianzus, patriarch of Constantinople
“May you [Cyprian] look down from above propitiously upon us, and guide our word and life; and shepherd this sacred flock . . . gladden the Holy Trinity, before which you stand” (Orations 17 [A.D. 380]).
“Yes, I am well assured that [my father’s] intercession is of more avail now than was his instruction in former days, since he is closer to God, now that he has shaken off his bodily fetters, and freed his mind from the clay that obscured it, and holds conversation naked with the nakedness of the prime and purest mind . . . ” (ibid., 18:4).
Gregory, bishop of Nyssa
“[Ephraim], you who are standing at the divine altar [in heaven] . . . bear us all in remembrance, petitioning for us the remission of sins, and the fruition of an everlasting kingdom” (Sermon on Ephraim the Syrian [A.D. 380]).
John Chrysostom, patriarch of Constantinople
“He that wears the purple [i.e., a royal man] . . . stands begging of the saints to be his patrons with God, and he that wears a diadem begs the tentmaker [Paul] and the fisherman [Peter] as patrons, even though they be dead” (Homilies on Second Corinthians 26 [A.D. 392]).
“When you perceive that God is chastening you, fly not to his enemies . . . but to his friends, the martyrs, the saints, and those who were pleasing to him, and who have great power [in God]” (Orations 8:6 [A.D. 396]).
Ambrose, archbishop of Milan
“May Peter, who wept so efficaciously for himself, weep for us and turn towards us Christ’s benign countenance” (The Six Days Work 5:25:90 [A.D. 393]).
Jerome, presbyter of Rome
“You say in your book that while we live we are able to pray for each other, but afterwards when we have died, the prayer of no person for another can be heard. . . . But if the apostles and martyrs while still in the body can pray for others, at a time when they ought still be solicitous about themselves, how much more will they do so after their crowns, victories, and triumphs?” (Against Vigilantius 6 [A.D. 406]).
Augustine, bishop of Hippo
“A Christian people celebrates together in religious solemnity the memorials of the martyrs, both to encourage their being imitated and so that it can share in their merits and be aided by their prayers” (Against Faustus the Manichean [A.D. 400]).
“There is an ecclesiastical discipline, as the faithful know, when the names of the martyrs are read aloud in that place at the altar of God, where prayer is not offered for them. Prayer, however, is offered for the dead who are remembered. For it is wrong to pray for a martyr, to whose prayers we ought ourselves be commended” (Sermons 159:1 [A.D. 411]).
“At the Lord’s table we do not commemorate martyrs in the same way that we do others who rest in peace so as to pray for them, but rather that they may pray for us that we may follow in their footsteps” (Homilies on John 84 [A.D. 416]).
“Neither are the souls of the pious dead separated from the Church which even now is the kingdom of Christ. Otherwise there would be no remembrance of them at the altar of God in the communication of the Body of Christ” (The City of God 20:9:2 [A.D. 419]).
Salminius Hermias Sozomenus, historian
“For the power of God was there manifested, and was helpful both in waking visions and in dreams, often for the relief of many diseases and for those afflicted by some sudden transmutation in their affairs. The power was accredited to Mary, the Mother of God, the holy virgin, for she does manifest herself in this way” (Ecclesial History Book 7 Ch 5 [A.D. 375-477]).
Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus
“For this reason I have gladly accepted the sentence of relegation. I am ready for exile, and, for the sake of the “hope laid up for me,” welcome whatever fate they may inflict. I pray without ceasing for your excellency, and beseech all the saints to share in my petitions” (Letter 111 [A.D. 393-457]).
Leo the Great, bishop of Rome
When on our very arrival in the ancient city, we were engaged in paying our devotion to the most blessed Apostle Peter, at the martyr’s very altar, the most reverend Bishop Leo waiting behind awhile after the service uttered laments over the catholic Faith to us, and taking to witness the chief of the Apostles himself likewise” (Letter 56 [A.D. 395-461]).
“On Wednesday and Friday next, therefore, let us fast, and on Saturday keep vigil with the most blessed Apostle Peter, by whose prayers we may in all things obtain the Divine protection through Christ our LORD. Amen” (Sermon 17 [A.D. 395-461]).
Gregory the Great, bishop of Rome
“But, though perhaps our men may not need this, do not refuse your testimony in the case; that so, with regard to the truth as well as to the devotion of your good will, the blessed apostle Peter, for whose love you do this, may respond to you by his intercession both here and in the life to come” (Letters Book 6 letter 55 [A.F. 540-604]).
Bede the Venerable, monk and historian
“Book V opens with the story of the holy Ethelwald, who succeeded Cuthbert as anchorite at Fame, and a miracle wrought through his intercession” (Ecclesiastical History of England Introduction and Overview [A.D. 672-735]).
“A dread vision has even now appeared to me, which I would have you hear and keep secret, till I know what God will please to do with me. There stood by me a certain one, glorious in white raiment, and he told me that he was Michael, the Archangel, and said, “I am sent to call you back from death: for the Lord has granted you life, through the prayers and tears of your disciples and brethren, and the intercession of His Blessed Mother Mary, of perpetual virginity” (Ecclesiastical History of England Book 5 ch 18 [A.D. 672-735]).
THE ACTS of the Fourth session of the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicaea (A.D. 787) had something to say on this matter:
“We accept (aspazometha) the word of the Lord and his Apostles through which we have been taught to honor (timan) and magnify (megalynein) in the first place Her who is properly and truly the Mother of God (Theotokos) and exalted above all the heavenly Powers; also the holy and angelic Powers; the blessed and all-lauded Apostles; and the glorious Prophets and the triumphant Martyrs who fought for Christ; holy and God fearing Doctors, and all holy men; to seek their intercession (presveies), to make us at home with the all-royal God of all, so long as we keep his commandments and strive to live virtuously. Moreover we accept (aspazometha) the image of the honorable and life-giving Cross, and the holy relics of the saints; and we receive the holy and venerable images; we accept them and we embrace them, according to the ancient traditions of the Holy Catholic Church of God, that is to say our holy Fathers, who also received these things and established them in all the most holy Churches of God and in every place of His dominion. These honorable and venerable images, as has been said, we honor, accept and reverently venerate (timitikosproskynoumen): the image of the incarnation of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, and that of our immaculate Lady, the all-holy Mother of God, from whom he pleased to take flesh and to save and deliver us from all impious idolatry; also the images of the holy and incorporeal Angels, who appeared to the just as men. Likewise we also venerate the figures and the effigies (morphas, eikonismata) of the divine and all-lauded Apostles, the God-speaking Prophets, and the suffering martyrs and holy men, so that through their representations (anazografiseos) we may be able to be led back in memory and recollections to the prototype, and participate in their holiness.”
Though the doctrine of the intecession of those who belong in the Church Triumphant has been believed since the earliest eras of Christianity, it was in A.D. 1545-1563 that the doctrine of invocation and intercession has been defined and set forth by the Twenty-Fifth session of the Nineteenth Ecumenical Council at Trent in response to the 16th-century Protestant Reformation. The decree is as follows:
” … the saints who reign together with Christ offer up their own prayers to God for men. It is good and useful suppliantly to invoke them, and to have recourse to their prayers, aid, and help for obtaining benefits from God, through His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, Who alone is our Redeemer and Savior. Those persons think impiously who deny that the Saints, who enjoy eternal happiness in heaven, are to be invoked; or who assert either that they do not pray for men, or that the invocation of them to pray for each of us is idolatry, or that it is repugnant to the word of God, and is opposed to the honour of the one Mediator of God and men, Jesus Christ.”
From the very words of the Cathechism, these holy men “do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus” (CCC 956).
Thus, according to the same great Tridentine Council, “If anyone says that it is a deception to celebrate Masses in honor of the saints and in order to obtain their intercession with God, as the Church intends, LET HIM BE ANATHEMA.”