Veneration of Saints
According to the proper definition, "worship" means to honor or give respect. When used among Christians, "worship" means adoration, or the kind of honor and glory bestowed upon God alone. It is in the former sense that Catholics worship Mary and the saints. It is in the latter sense that Catholics do not worship Mary or any of the other saints. Adoration, according to Catholic teaching, must be given to God alone.
There are different degrees of worship. Latria, the highest degree, is given to God. Dulia, a lower degree of worship, is given to the saints. It is not idolatry to "worship" the saints, but to give them the degree of worship that God is given (adoration). God deserved a special type of honor because of His perfections and His other divine attributes. The saints lack this, so a lower degree of honor is given, for the virtue by which the saints lived. Since worship now means adoration in popular usage, the Catholic Church prefers to use the word "veneration" regarding the honor given to the saints.
The Hebrew word for worship, shakah, was used in the Bible to refer not only to the honor given to God, but also for the honor given to men: "Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father's sons shall worship (shakah) you" (Gen 49:8); "Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and worshiped (shakah) him and kissed him; and they asked each other of their welfare, and went into the tent" (Ex. 18:7).
Honor is also given similarly today. Judges are addressed as "Your Honor." Mayors are addressed as "Your Worship." Wives, at their weddings, make the vow to "love, honor, and obey" their husbands. Honor is given to heroes and men of great accomplishment. Thus, there is nothing wrong with bestowing honor upon other men. If that honor becomes adoration, then it is wrong, but the veneration of saints does not approach adoration.
The Bible also commands us to "honor your father and your mother" (Ex. 20:12). (See also Lev. 19:32; Ex. 28:2). Paul wrote: "Pay all of them . . . honor to whom honor is due" (Rom. 13:7). Peter wrote: "Honor all men . . . Honor the emperor" (1 Pet. 2:17). Religious figures were also to be honored: "Let the presbyters [priests] who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching" (1 Tim. 5:17). If the living can be thus honored, it is even more appropriate to honor the saints in heaven, who have been perfected.
How are saints honored? One way is through art, by displaying pictures of the saints and treating them respectfully. Another way is through prayer. We honor the saints by placing confidence in the power of their prayers. The saints can also be honored by song. If a nation can be honored with an anthem, certainly it is not idolatry to sing in honor of a saint. We honor saints by our remembrance of them. And the saints can also be honored by our imitation of their virtues. Paul stated: "I urge you, then, be imitators of me" (1 Cor. 4:16).
"But isn't Christ our perfect role model," say Protestants? "Why imitate the saints. We should just imitate Jesus." We should imitate the saints because they imitate Jesus: "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1). The saints provide us with many examples of Christian living and virtue that should be imitated, so that in imitating the saints, we imitate Christ. (2 Thess. 3:7-9; Heb. 13:7).
Sirach, in his own "hall of fame" section, says, "So now let us give praise to godly men, our ancestors of generations past, those whom the Lord honored with great glory, in whom his greatness has been seen . . . All of these were famous in their own times, honored by the people of their day. Some of them left a reputation, and people still praise them today . . . We praise these godly men, whose righteous deeds have never been forgotten . . . Their reputations will be passed on to their descendants . . . Their reputations will live forever . . . Nations will tell about their wisdom, and God's people will praise them" (Sirach 44:1-15).
Protestants say the honor given to saints is taken away from God and given to them instead. But all the honor that is given to the saints ultimately goes back to God. It is his grace that is the source of all that is worthy of veneration in the saints. By honoring the saints, we honor God, for the reason that it was His grace that made the saints great Christians and worthy of honor and imitation. We honor God and what he has done through the saints. By honoring a piece of artwork, for instance, the artist himself is honored. "God vs. the saints" is a harmony rather than a dichotomy.
Protestants often argue against the Catholic practice of venerating the saints because they say the Bible refers to saints as being believers that are still alive here on Earth. Of course, such an argument does little more than to show that Catholics use the term in a different sense now. Saints, in popular usage, refer to those who have died and are in heaven with God, or more specifically, Christians who have been canonized by the Church, or who are officially recognized as "saints" by the Church. Certainly, it is correct to call all Christians "saints" (this is, after all, Biblical), but there is nothing wrong with using the word to refer to those who have died in the state of grace and are now in heaven. They are, after all, saints.
Jerome (To Riparius, Epistle 109:1 [A.D. 404]) "And do we, every time that we enter the basilicas of apostles and prophets and martyrs, pay homage to the shrines of idols . . . I will go farther still and ask a question which will make this theory recoil upon the head of its inventor and which will either kill or cure that frenzied brain of his, so that simple souls shall be no more subverted by his sacrilegious reasonings. Let him answer me this, Was the Lord's body unclean when it was placed in the sepulchre?".
Augustine (Against Faustus, 20:21 [A.D. 400]) "As to our paying honor to the memory of the martyrs, and the accusation of Faustus, that we worship them instead of idols . . . It is true that Christians pay religious honor to the memory of the martyrs . . . We regard the martyrs with the same affectionate intimacy that we feel towards holy men of God in this life . . . What is properly divine worship, which the Greeks call latria, and for which there is no word in Latin, both in doctrine and in practice, we give only to God" .
Cyril of Alexandria (Against Julian, 6 [A.D. 430]) "We by no means consider the holy martyrs to be gods, nor are we wont to bow down before them adoringly, but only relatively and reverentially".