I have groused that David Bercot’s Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs was deficient in its treatment of the cult of the saints in Christian antiquity. In fact, the only entries under “Should Christians pray to the dead?” are condemnations of necromancy by Tertullian and Lactantius! In an otherwise fine volume, this section grossly misrepresents the literary and archeological record of the early Church. For the early Christians practiced a lively and deep devotion to the saints.
Not to worry, though, because other books make up for the bit that is lacking in Bercot, and there’s always more room on the bookshelf. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press offers a nice anthology in its popular patristics series: The Cult of the Saints includes St. John Chrysostom’s homilies and letters related to the great men whom St. Paul refers to as the “saints in light” (Col 1:12). When you have Fathers praising Fathers — in this case, Chrysostom praising Ignatius (and many others) — you’ve got to listen up.
In his standard work on Early Christian Doctrines, J.N.D. Kelly notes how the earliest Christians reverently preserved the relics of the martyrs and every year celebrated their “birthdays” (into heaven, that is). Origen and Cyprian attest to the custom of seeking the intercession of the saints. And their literary remains find echo in graffiti throughout the ancient world. The ancient liturgies invoke the saints of both the Old and New Testaments, as well as the martyrs. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Ambrose, St. Epiphanius, St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory Nazianzen exhort their flocks to seek the help of the saints. And it’s a multimedia testimony. We can still look upon those early images of saints, painted on the walls of the catacombs, engraved on tombstones, and etched into the sides of pilgrim flasks and oil lamps. Everywhere the Gospel reached, the strain re-echoed: “Pray for us!”
There’s more evidence in Peter Brown’s The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (The Haskell Lectures on History of Religions). Though Brown does not write from a perspective of faith — perhaps because he doesn’t — he is a reliable witness. He has no dog in the Protestant-Catholic fight over the intercession of the saints. But Catholics will recognize a familiar devotion in some of their ancient forebears, as they appear in Brown’s book. I like his description of the Mediterranean region after the rise of Christianity: “while it may not have become markedly more ‘otherworldly,’ it was most emphatically ‘upperworldly.'”
Orthodox and Catholic Christianity still is. We profess belief in “life everlasting. We believe also that we live amid a “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1). We believe that Christians must “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2). We believe that the dead cry out before the altar in heaven, pleading with God to right the wrongs upon earth (Rev 6:9-10).
In short, we believe in the faith of our Fathers. There’s good patristic material online at Catholic Answers and in the Catholic Encyclopedia. So celebrate the day with gusto. Celebrate with all the saints in heaven and on earth!