Saint Worship - Part 4

I have shown that it is meet and proper, not only to worship God in His saints, but also to worship the saints themselves for such personal merits or worth as they have acquired by their voluntary concurrence with the divine action in nature and grace. I intended to proceed directly to consider what is the actual worship which we render to the saints, but I must [first] prove to my readers that the principle of saint-worship is held even by people who do not accept the Church.

The principle of saint-worship is, that saints have merit, and merit is to be honored wherever it exists – a broad, and in some sense a democratic, principle, in that it overlooks all the factitious distinctions of birth, race, rank, wealth, or position, to fix the regard on real moral worth. The Church has canonized kings, nobles, military officers of high rank, private soldiers, humble shepherds, poor peasants, and day laborers. Mary is not worshiped as a saint because she was of the royal line of David, but for her personal worth – her real worth, acquired by her uniform concurrence with the divine grace; and if she is more honored than any other saint, it is because her merits are greater, as well as her connection closer with the salvation of man.

I hope some day to point out the peculiar merits of our blessed Lady, and to show wherefore she is really, as the Church calls her, the queen of all saint. In no way can we better learn what are the virtues most precious in the eyes of the Church than by meditating on those of Mary, and in no way can we better aid our own spiritual progress. In reflecting on her distinctive virtues we may perhaps learn why the Church, from the earliest ages, has taken so much care to encourage her worship, and uniformly treats with special indulgence those who prove themselves her devoted clients. But this does not enter into my present plan, which is confined to the nature, ground, and character of saint-worship in general.

I have defended or justified the worship of the saints by showing that God has created them second causes, and capable of concurring by their own free will with His divine action, and, therefore, by the assistance of His grace, of acquiring merit. The saints are they who have well merited, and it would be unjust not to acknowledge it; not to render to them the honor that is their due. The principle of saint-worship is admitted, and the worship, to some extent, is practically rendered, even by those who [hold] that the saint-worship practiced by Catholics is idolatry and superstition. All ages and nations practice in some form and in some degree what Carlyle calls hero-worship, in which, in his quaint way, he tells us there is a moral fitness and a profound philosophy. No small part of the religion of the ancient gentiles consisted of hero-worship. No doubt the gentiles often honored in their heroes and great men what were really not virtues, and with honors which should never be paid to a creature; but so far as they honored human virtue, or intended to honor it, they recognized the fundamental principle on which our saint-worship rests, and differed from us only in its development and application.

Our modern gentiles are not insensible to the principles of saint-worship, and in their own way develop and apply it in practice. And far gone is the nation that fails to recognize and honor worth in its servants! How many American parents have given their children the names, how many counties, towns, cities, villages, and city streets in our country [bear] the names, of its great men – just as in Catholic countries they have the names of the saints.

All this shows that the principle of saint-worship is active in the hearts of non-Catholic Americans – and it is, I need not say, a principle that does honor to human nature. All duty is duty to God; and the basis, the fundamental principle, of the civil order is precisely that of the religious order. All true civil or political principles have their ground and origin in theological principles, and through the medium of the creative act are joined to God.

We live, and move, and have our being in God, and God by His creative act is in us, in all our thoughts, words, and deeds, for without Him we are nothing, and can do nothing. The fundamental principle of all human activity in all orders is one and the same. Hence, theologians tell us, grace supposes nature, and it is error to hold that grace supersedes nature. Grace takes away no natural faculty and adds none, it simply elevates to a new plane our natural faculties, and gives them a new power and direction, as we are taught by the Church in her doctrine that our free will concurs in the works of our conversion. In conversion, in justification, in spiritual progress, human nature acts and must act, and on this fact we have grounded the possibility of human merit. Nature is not sufficient of itself, is not complete in itself, for it has in itself neither its first beginning nor its last end, and therefore it is that all natural good is imperfect good. But all Catholic theologians teach that, insofar as it is real, it is good, and hence the proposition that "all the works of infidels are sins" is condemned.

Now, as man exists and acts only by virtue of the creative act of God, all his actions in some sense pertain to the religious order, as being done by virtue of the principle which is the principle of religion itself. Whatever action is right in the natural order, or in the civil order, is included in religion, and to some extent partakes of its character. The civil virtues are not of themselves sufficient to merit the eternal rewards of heaven, nor are the civil honors we pay to them, or to statesmen, military heroes, patriots, philosophers, scholars, poets, artists, etc., as high as those merited by the great saint who to the natural joins the supernatural; but they are religious in the sense that they proceed from the relations of man to God through the divine creative act.

The error of gentilism in its hero-worship was not as to the principle underlying it, which was the same as the principle of Catholic saint-worship, a principle natural to the human heart, and authorized, as we have seen, by its relation to the principle of the worship of God Himself; the error was in the virtues honored, and in the honors paid. There is a vast difference between canonization and apotheosis. Canonization simply attests the virtues of the saint, and authorizes the faithful to worship, or honor, him as a saint; apotheosis placed the hero among the gods, and authorized his worship as a god. To the saint we pay only such honors as are due to a man who, concurring with divine grace, is sanctified and glorified, that is, completed, made perfect in Christ our Lord; to the divinized hero the heathen paid divine honors, which are not and cannot be due a simple creature, however great or holy.

Then again the virtues honored by the heathen in their hero-worship were often no virtues at all, or, if virtues, were not virtues in the highest order. Take, for example, Hercules, Theseus, Romulus, Indra, Woden, or Thor, and the legend presents you no example worthy of imitation; no virtue but simple strength or force, which is, though a good thing, no moral virtue at all, nor anything for which its possessor deserves to be honored, since it is not a merit acquired by the action of his own free will, with or without the assistance of grace. I say nothing here of the vices, the crimes, the gross demerits, ascribed by the legend to the famed heroes worshiped by the gentiles, because the legend is to a great extent mythical, and these things may perhaps be explained in a pantheistic sense, as symbolizing the productive and destructive forces of nature. (I speak here of hero-worship proper, or of men deified, not of the worship paid to the gods, [beings superhuman] by nature, who, as the Scriptures inform us, were all demons, or as we may say, fallen angels, evil spirits, too often in the history of the world adored as divine, as they are in modern spiritism.)

The term Messiah, applied to the public honors paid President [Lincoln], so barbarously assassinated, and likewise to Cyrus W. Field, who it was supposed had succeeded in laying a working telegraph across the Atlantic, (1) prove how prone men are not only to practice hero-worship, but, when left to themselves, to fall into the pagan error of confounding men with God, and God with men, and to convert even civil honors into idolatry and superstition. The heart, when touched by some deep feeling, or acting under strong excitement, is prone to exaggerate, to run into every species of extravagance; and the Church, by taking charge herself of saint-worship, forbidding all private or local canonization, and allowing public honors to be paid only to such as she proposes to the veneration of the faithful, and these to be worshiped with only such offices as she herself prescribes, offers the sole safeguard we can have against this natural extravagance, or against converting the worship into idolatry or superstition.