The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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February 2, 2001 Issue
Foundations of Faith

Wouldn't you ask your friends to pray for you?

The saints want to help us with our needs

By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor

With all the colds and flu going around, you may have a sore throat today. If so, maybe you should get it blessed.

This weekend, many parishes will celebrate the feast of St. Blaise by blessing throats with candles. This tradition, asking the intercession of a fourth century bishop of Sebaste, Armenia, dates to at least the sixth century. In fact, asking saints for help is an ancient tradition of the church, going back to the days of the first martyrs. These saints' intercession was considered especially beneficial, since they had died for love of Christ and were clearly with him now.

Blaise was also a martyr, tortured and beheaded during the reign of Licnius around 316. Before being taken prisoner, Blaise hid in a cave and treated sick animals. As he was led to prison, legends say, he convinced a wolf not to eat the only pig belonging to a poor woman. This woman, in gratitude, brought candles and food to his cell. The saint is also said to have saved a boy from choking on a fishbone, earning the title of intercessor for throat ailments.

Blaise is one of many saints whose help we elicit for specific illnesses. There is St. Peregrine Luziosi for cancer patients. Lucy of Syracuse for those with eye ailments. And Agatha, patron of women with breast disease.

Why ask saints for help? Two basic reasons.

First, we believe saints live in the presence of God, beholding God this very moment. Equally, they are with us now, as companions who wish to help. As St. Therese of Lisieux said, "I want to spend my heaven doing good on earth."

Just as we would not hesitate to ask friends to pray for us in illness, so we should not hesitate to ask the saints to do the same. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, saints "contemplate God, praise him and constantly care for those whom they have left on earth. When they entered into the joy of their Master, they were 'put in charge of many things.' Their intercession is their most exalted service to God's plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world" (no. 2683.)

Secondly, we believe the saints have "walked in our shoes." Not only did they live human lives, but they suffered just as we do. That suffering on earth leads specific saints in heaven to be named patrons of certain diseases.

Therefore, Peregrine -- whose cancerous leg was healed just before amputation -- is called on by cancer patients. St. Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin, is a patron for pregnancy.

Other saints are called upon because their martyrtdoms can be linked -- though less extremely -- to specific ailments. So St. Denis -- who was beheaded -- is the patron of those with headaches. St. Erasmus, who was disemboweled, is patron for appendicitis and other intestinal ailments. The above-mentioned Agatha had her breasts crushed and cut off during her martyrdom.

So we can believe that the saints understand our pain when we ask for their help.

But most important to remember is that any help given us by the saints comes from God through the merits of Christ. If we believe that the saints understand what we're going through, how much more must Christ understand our sufferings?

"Jesus unites himself with each one of us," says Fr. John Catoir, former director of the Christophers. "He became our brother in the flesh so that he could share our pain. During his earthly life, the Lord suffered and died a human death, a painful death. Why? Because he wanted us to know that he is with us in our brokenness and sorrow."

And here, I think, we have the true reason we use candles for the feast of St. Blaise. Not because he received candles in prison, but because his life revealed Christ's life. Blaise's feast (Feb. 3) falls right after Candlemas (Feb. 2), also called the Feast of the Presentation. Candles are a traditional part of this feast, which commemorates the first time Jesus came into God's Temple exactly 40 days after his birth.

Luke tells us that the infant Jesus was welcomed by Simeon, a pious, elderly man whose name means "God has heard," no doubt to remind us of the long awaited promise of God's salvation. As Fr. Robert Karris, OFM, says, Simeon is presented as "background for this expectation of God's saving deed." That deed, of course, was the Paschal Mystery of Christ's passion, death and resurrection.

In Simeon's words, we find the symbolism behind our use of candles at Candlemas: "For my eyes have witnessed your saving deed displayed for all the peoples to see. A revealing light to the Gentiles, the glory of your people Israel" (Lk 2:20-22).

Candles symbolize that "revealing light" of God's love and salvation to all the world. We use candles at each Mass to symbolize the glory of God revealed in Christ. And no candle ceremony is more dramatic in our liturgies than that of the Easter Vigil when Christ our Light overcomes the darkness of death, sin and suffering.

Candles remind us that, even before his saints were there in suffering and death, Jesus was there. He went before them, and us, into the darkness of the Cross -- and the glory of new life. He knows what suffering is like and his saving light overcomes it, just as he overcomes everything that separates us from God, the source of all life.

So as you get your throat blessed on the feast of St. Blaise, remember the glory of God "revealed to all the nations." And remember that our throats can also be used to praise God who uses the witness of the saints to "manifest his holiness and continue the work of salvation" (CCC, no. 688).

(Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; Jerome Biblical Commentary; "Spirituality for Today," Catholic News Service; Catholic Encyclopedia; Butler's Lives of the Saints; and Dictionary of Catholic Devotions)

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