Source: Get Religion
September 8, 2016
The other day I received a note from a GetReligion reader
who clearly knows some theology.
The email concerned a passage in a National Public Radio story about St.
Teresa of Kolkata that our reader knew, since I am
an Eastern Orthodox layman, would punch my buttons. The
reader was right. There is a good chance that NPR
producers know little or nothing about Orthodox
Christianity. Hold that thought.
The key to this case study is a very, very fine point of
theology that is going to be hard to explain. It’s
possible that the story may have just barely missed the
mark. However, it’s more likely that it contains a
spew-your-caffeinated beverage error that needs to be
Let’s carefully tip-toe into this minefield. The
passage in question focuses on the miracles, documented by
church officials, that led to the canonization of the
famous Albanian nun known as Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
A key quote comes from Bishop Robert Barron, the auxiliary
bishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Read
carefully and, well, pay attention to details about
theology and church history:
Humanitarian work alone, however, is not sufficient
for canonization in the Catholic Church. Normally, a
candidate must be associated with at least two miracles.
The idea is that a person worthy of sainthood must
demonstrably be in heaven, actually interceding with God
on behalf of those in need of healing.
Let me pause and note the presence of the word
In Mother Teresa’s case, a woman in India whose
stomach tumor disappeared and a man in Brazil with brain
abscesses who awoke from a coma both credited their
dramatic recovery to prayers offered to the nun after her
death in 1997.
“A saint is someone who has lived a life of great
virtue, whom we look to and admire,” says Bishop
Barron, a frequent commentator on Catholicism and
spirituality. “But if that’s all we emphasize, we
flatten out sanctity. The saint is also someone who’s
now in heaven, living in this fullness of life with God.
And the miracle, to put it bluntly, is the proof of
No other Christian denomination posits this notion of
an individual in heaven mediating between God and
In this case, note the use of the word
“mediating.” Notice that, in this context, the
implication is that St. Teresa is the person doing the
However, the very upset reader who wrote me focused on
that final sentence in the passage, the one stating that
no “other Christian denomination” believes that
saints in heaven – led by St. Mary, the mother of
Jesus and the queen of heaven – join believers in
their prayers to the Holy Trinity.
Say what? The reader notes:
Why do reporters forget/ignore/have no knowledge about
the Orthodox (Eastern and Oriental) Churches? It seems
that for journalists and many Protestants, the Orthodox
church represents a “blind spot” in their view
of religion and theology.
Yes, that statement in the NPR story would certainly come
as a stunning surprise to the world’s 250-300 million
believers in the ancient churches of Eastern Orthodoxy.
That’s the planet’s second largest Christian
church (in this case it was wrong for NPR to use the word
“denomination”), unless one attempted (perhaps
risking war) to put the legions of different brands of
Protestantism into one flock. There are 1.1 billion or so
The Orthodox don’t seek the intercessions of the
When you walk into any Orthodox sanctuary you are
surrounded by sacred art of the saints – icons, or
“windows into heaven.” Orthodox worship is full
of prayers to God, to Jesus and to the Holy Spirit, as
well as prayers asking St. Mary the Theotokos (the
“God-bearer”) and the saints to join with the
worshipers in appeals for God’s mercy and healing.
For newcomers, this fusion of art and prayer with the
saints is usually the most striking element of Orthodox
worship. Take a look at that Orthodox icon at the top of
this post, showing the saints in heaven gathered around
Christ the King. As my dear friend Frederica
Mathewes-Green – the wife of our family’s priest
in Maryland for a dozen years – likes to say, when
these saints join us in prayer, they are making a local
call on our behalf.
It certainly appears that the NPR team needs to correct
this piece, pronto. It’s never wise to tick off
Russians, Greeks, Arabs, etc.
However, let me mention one complication. Note that this
report seems to assume that “interceding” is the
same thing, when talking theological details, as
For some, that second term – especially when used to
describe the role of St. Mary – means far more than
offering prayers on behalf of believers, but of playing a
much more direct role in the “mediating” of
healing and salvation. The key word here is
“Mediatrix.” Click here if you want to wade into
I sincerely doubt that the NPR team was trying to go
there, making a very fine point about the beliefs of
Catholics. Like I said, the word “mediating” in
this context appears to have been connected to St. Teresa,
instead of St. Mary.
Here is the crucial concept to grasp, as a veteran
Catholic priest once explained it to me:
“What must be stressed is that we pray for a
saint to intercede for us with God. Actually, it’s
more accurate to say that we ask the saint to pray
‘with’ us, rather than to say that we pray
‘to’ a saint. … You see, all grace comes from
the Trinity, from the Godhead. These kinds of supernatural
interventions always come from God. The saint plays a
role, but God performs the miracle. That may sound like a
trivial distinction to some people, but it is
When describing this process to non-Catholics, especially
to Protestants who are critical of the church, the priest
offers a metaphor from – believe it or not –
There is this citizen, he explained, who has a
problem. His sidewalk is so messed up that it has become
dangerous. This citizen can, of course, call city hall and
seek help. It would also be appropriate to directly call
the mayor. However, this particular citizen also has a
good friend, or perhaps it is even a loved one, who works
in the mayor’s office. Why not ask for this close
friend to intercede, as well?
“That is what intercessory prayer is about.
Orthodox Christians would say “Amen” to that.
So let’s assume that this journalistic problem needs a
Dear NPR folks: Please print a correction noting that
Eastern Orthodox Christianity exists and that believers in
this massive global flock constantly, and urgently, appeal
for the saints in heaven to intercede for us, joining in
our prayers for God’s mercy and miracles.