Lots of folks think that Catholics pray to the saints, making the saints something like the pantheon of Greek or Roman gods, each with his/her own dominion. That’s not at all true. Instead, Catholics pray through the saints.
As human beings, it is impossible for us to fully comprehend what God is. To a certain extent, God will always be an alien, different being from us precisely because He is just that. Saints, on the other hand, were just people, like you and me. They had their weaknesses, the times when they slipped and fell, dark nights of doubt and despair — just like you and me. We can all relate to that.
Saints are distinguished by the fact that each of them rose above all those weaknesses and miseries that are part of being human. Digging into the same human depths that each of us has, they were able to find the courage and strength to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and doing so, they became shining beacons of light for the world. They become role models for us.
But they are so much more. When we find ourselves in some particular difficulty, most of us look for someone who has successfully handled that kind of difficulty, someone who can understand what we’re going through and show us the options and ways out of that difficulty. It’s often hard to find such a person among the physically living, and that’s where saints come in. Saints have their patronages (St. Jude for hopeless causes, St. Sebastian for gay people, St. Joseph for social justice). They fit the need for each of the particular difficulties that humankind is heir to.
Social scientists and practitioners have long known that many difficulties can be overcome and many problems resolved by talking through them. Even physical pain is lessened by talking about it. And, in many ways, prayer is simply a matter of talking on a spiritual level, contemplating difficult issues. By talking through things with another human being who has worked through similar difficulties we allow ourselves to be guided in resolving a challenging situation. Saints stand ready to be that listening ear.
For LGBTQ+ folks, living in a world and a Church that rejects them as intrinsically disordered, saints can be particularly important. Historians have compelling evidence that many of those in the list of canonized saints were LGBTQ+ folks. Despite overwhelming efforts to suppress the evidence, it survives. It is important for us to know and understand those folks, as well as the many who have not been canonized like Mychal Judge, Harvey Milk, and Ruth Simpson. These are our role models, our pillars of light guiding us through the jungle of despair.
Every culture is known by historical figures such as these. Ask anyone what the characteristics of American culture are, and names like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln will always come up. Rightly or wrongly, we continue to look back at these figures in times of distress and ask what they would have done. As a people, we in the LGBTQ+ faith community need similar people, our LGBTQ+ saints. If we come to know them well, when times of adversity strike, we have but to sit back and contemplate their lives seeking the answers to the current challenge. In that dialog, we will find the answers that we need.