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The doctrine of the intercession of saints states that deceased saints can be asked (via prayer) to intercede for the living. This assumes that there is:

  1. A living Christian.
  2. A deceased saint.
  3. A one-way communication from the living Christian to the deceased saint. (*)
  4. A two-way communication between the deceased saint and God.

(*) I say one-way and not two-way in point 3 because the deceased saint does not communicate back to the living Christian (or at least the doctrine doesn't state that possibility as far as I'm aware).

My question is regarding how Catholics make sure that points 2 and 3 are really taking place. I imagine that not everyone that one decides to pray to is necessarily a deceased saint. This is easy to see with an extreme example. Let's say someone decides to pray to Adolf Hitler. Most would agree that Hitler is very likely not saved. So praying to him would be a wasted prayer, because Hitler, though he meets the condition of being deceased, doesn't meet the condition of being a saint. So that's an easy one to tell, but what about other, more ambiguous cases? What if my uncle Bob, who passed away last year, was a believer, was very virtuous but also had his fair share of defects? How can I tell if he was saved or lost at the moment of death? And what about deceased virtuous pagans who, though they were not strictly Christian, still had a chance to be saved and, therefore, to intercede for the living?

In other words, I would like to know if Catholics have a standard protocol in place to determine which deceased persons are trustable candidates to ask intercession of, to avoid false positive situations in which they accidently pray to someone who was not truly a deceased saint. Similarly, are there any negative consequences that might occur if someone accidently asks intercession of a deceased non-saint (e.g. someone prays to a deceased relative who is actually in Hell/not saved)? Is it possible that a demon could take advantage of the situation and answer the prayer instead, pretending to be the deceased non-saint?

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  • Are you talking about "saints" meaning canonised by the Catholic church or "saints" in the more general sense of meaning someone who is (or was) a Christian? Mar 16 at 20:55
  • @DJClayworth - I mean anyone who can, in principle, be asked to intercede for the living. I assumed that that definition applies to each person who dies being saved. Mar 16 at 20:58
  • That's a very tough questions; there are whole books written on this particularly thorny subject.
    – Lucian
    Aug 2 at 8:44
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Unless the saint has been canonized by the Church, one cannot know for sure whether he or she is truly a saint or is in purgatory or hell.

One must pray for the deceased (suffrages for the dead: "Masses, prayers, or acts of piety offered for the repose of the souls of the faithful departed"), in case they are in purgatory. Once they are in heaven, then they can pray for us.

Fr. Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., Life Everlasting: A Theological Treatise on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell, ch. 26 "Charity for the poor souls [in purgatory]":

May we also pray to the poor souls [in purgatory]? The liturgy does not pray to them. But we are not forbidden to pray to them, though we must give preference to prayer for them. Here is a sentence from St. Thomas: "The souls in purgatory are not in the state of praying, but in the state of being prayed for." [Summa Theologica II-II q. 83 a. 11 ad 3]

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The old adage is "no prayers are wasted" and I thought I beat Geremia to an Aquinas reference, but I realize now that he read the question more carefully than I did.

The gist of it is:

  1. Praying for a soul in Heaven as if it were 'in' Purgatory

    This adds to their 'accidental glory' and is not wasted

  2. Praying for a soul 'in' purgatory as if it were in Heaven

    Why did you do this? Foolish mortal, trust the Church

  3. Praying for a soul in Hell as if it were in Purgatory or Heaven

    Oops, not your fault, there's always hope that everyone converted though (before death lest ye think me a universalist), God is out of time. Demons will not steal your prayers, this is not a Catholic conception of what prayer is.

    the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want "any to perish, but all to come to repentance":

    CCC 1037

    You could be tricked into talking with demons by deceased soul in Heaven as easily as anywhere else.

see: https://www.ncregister.com/news/praying-for-the-dead-duty-and-privilege

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For 2., the Catholic Church provides canonical Saints. These are not the only Saints, but they are people who have been verified as Saints by the Church.

The process by which the CC arrives at a Saint is called the 'canonization process'.

This article describes the process.

  1. "It begins with the institution of a diocesan inquiry, which consists of a series of investigations initiated by a competent diocesan bishop who wishes to raise a cause of canonization. This inquiry has as its goal the collection of information concerning the life, heroic virtue, reputation of sanctity or martyrdom of the Servant of God, as well as proof of any possible miracles."

  2. "Second, after the information has been collected, it is sent to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, presided over by a cardinal prefect, which conducts a study of the case, concluding with the preparation of the positio."

  3. "Last, the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints discusses and passes judgment on the merits of the cause leading, with the approval of the pope, to beatification or canonization."

As for praying to people who are deceased but might not be in Heaven, this article claims that

"there is no harm in asking for their intercession and trusting God to answer our prayers in whatever manner he wills"

For 3., the article also states that the backdrop for these prayers is Jesus as intercessor.

"Christian prayer relies upon Jesus, as intercessor between God and man, to facilitate the communion."

So 2. is established by the Church, 3. is established by Jesus.

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