The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches encourage us to ask the dead saints to intercede for us. To quote from Software Monkey's answer to another question:

First off, it's useful to understand that Catholics (and that's Roman or Eastern Catholic, and, for that matter Eastern Orthodox) do not pray to the saints, so much as ask the faithful departed to pray for them to God.

Distinguishing between prayer and asking the saints to intercede on their behalf removes the problem with verses like Deuteronomy 18:11 which forbid 'inquiring of the dead'.

But my understanding is that pray is essentially synonymous to ask. Many of the Greek words translated pray seem to have that meaning: δέησις, δέομαι, ἔντευξις, ἐρωτάω, παρακαλέω. I have read a book which even says that prayer should be distinguished from thanking God, and should be used strictly to refer to asking God. If pray and ask are synonyms, then clearly distinguishing between them doesn't help anyone escape the Bible's prohibitions.

Is this analysis of the meaning of pray correct? Or is there a way in which pray and ask can legitimately be distinguished?

  • I would rewrite the question as "What is the difference between prayer and asking the saints?", because I am more familiar with the "What is the difference between...?" sentence construction.
    – Double U
    Dec 22, 2013 at 18:40
  • 1
    Modern definitions of pray (especially among Protestants) tend to emphasize/imply God as the one to whom the question is asked. The Catholic/Orthodox use the classic definition, so ask and pray are synonymous. When a Protestant accuses a Catholic of idolatry because s/he is praying to a saint, there is sometimes (often?) a misunderstanding of the definitions.
    – Ryan Frame
    Dec 22, 2013 at 19:50
  • Nowhere in the Bible does it say you can pray to anyone but God. In fact, prayer is conversation with God. So prayer to 'saints' is conversation with them and is regarded as inquiring of the dead. This is why it is so important to understand the state of the dead as presented in Scripture. Dec 23, 2013 at 13:36

1 Answer 1


A Catholic answer to your question would be to say that "pray" has more than one sense.

First, it means simply "ask", as you suggest. This is very obvious if we look at older styles of English. For example, from Hamlet:

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you (Act 3, Scene 2)

Here, "pray" means "ask". "I pray you" ends up basically meaning "please". This is the sense used when referring to the intercession of the saints.

Then it has a deeper meaning. Some quotes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Prayer is the raising of one's mind and heart to God ... Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God's thirst with ours. ... Prayer is the response of faith to the free promise of salvation and also a response of love to the thirst of the only Son of God. ... Christian prayer is a covenant relationship between God and man in Christ. It is the action of God and of man, springing forth from both the Holy Spirit and ourselves, wholly directed to the Father, in union with the human will of the Son of God made man. (CCC, ¶¶2559ff.)

This is a deeper meaning, referring to the covenant, communion relationship between human beings and God. Intercession, worship, penitence, and joy (and much else!) are part of the life of prayer. It is the expression and mode of the relationship between the human being and God, and in that way it is exclusive to God.

But the key point about the Catholic idea of prayer is that it isn't primarily individual as in more Protestant understandings. Rather, it is an ecclesial task, a task in which the whole Church participates together. This is seen supremely in the offering of the Mass:

To the offering of Christ are united not only the members still here on earth, but also those already in the glory of heaven. In communion with and commemorating the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, the Church offers the Eucharistic sacrifice. In the Eucharist the Church is as it were at the foot of the cross with Mary, united with the offering and intercession of Christ. (CCC, ¶1370)

The saints are part of the Church. (The traditional "parts" of the Church are the Church Militant here on earth, the Church Suffering in purgatory, and the Church Triumphant in Heaven.(CCC, ¶962)) So we join in the prayer of the whole Church to God. In this context, we are brothers and sisters with those making their prayer in Heaven. And what could be more natural than asking their prayer for us?

Prayer is a lot more than asking, yet "pray" also means "ask". It has a different sense when referring to God to what it means in referring to God.

As to the verse in Deuteronomy, to my mind this is a completely different matter to intercession to the saints. Let's look at the passage in its context:

No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practises divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. (Deuteronomy 18.10f., NRSV)

The context of the prohibition clearly refers to sorcery and magic, asking the dead about the future. This is the behaviour of Saul in consulting the Witch of Endor, for example. Catholics do not say, "Mary, who should I marry?" and expect a lightning bolt answer. Instead, they would say, "Mary, by your intercession help me to determine who I should marry." They are very different things.

Moreover, there is a significant difference between the time of Deuteronomy and the modern day. The idea of an afterlife was very different in ancient Judaism to the beliefs held today. (Remember that the distinction between Pharisees and Sadducees in Jesus' time was the former's belief in a resurrection.) According to the Catholic tradition, until the Resurrection of Christ the dead were trapped in Hell, and by his Resurrection he has led them to Heaven (the Harrowing of Hell). It is precisely the saints in Heaven of whom Catholics ask prayer. Before the Resurrection there were none, so prayer to the dead was prayer to souls in Hell.(See CCC, ¶¶631ff.)

  • Is the second (deeper) meaning of prayer thought to be present in the New Testament, or only the first? If it is, where, and how does it fit with the lexical definitions of those Greek words?
    – curiousdannii
    Dec 23, 2013 at 15:18
  • @curiousdannii In short, yes it is, though perhaps more in an implicit sense. Its sense is unfolded throughout Old Testament, New Testament and the age of the Church. The Catechism unfolds it at length in a chapter called "The Revelation of Prayer", starting here. Dec 23, 2013 at 15:26
  • Is there an example from the bible in which a person indicates that they believe their prayers on earth are somehow joined together with the prayers of those in heaven? Apr 26, 2020 at 12:38
  • @MikeBorden The entire Book of Revelation? Apr 26, 2020 at 13:20
  • @lonesomeday Can you be more specific? Apocalyptic literature is not usually taken as prescriptive. Apr 26, 2020 at 13:24

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .