An anti-ecclesiastic mode of thought common to Protestantism is that the Catholic Church encourages a form of idolatry, the so-called Cult of the Saints. This stems from the widespread misinformation that the Church encourages its faithful to 'pray to the saints' rather than to the Trinitarian God. This argument, while having a semi-legitimate basis--the practices of those faithful uneducated in Catholic doctrine, particularly the poor and illiterate may confuse legitimate devotions to the Saints with a nearly polytheistic worldview that does, in fact, include praying to the saints in a stance of petition equal to that owed to God. This, of course, is reprehensible heresy, though its proponents are not necessarily guilty of sin on the basis of their ignorance.
The church in no way encourages prayer to the saints for their direct intervention, that is, to petition a saint for a deed by their own power. In the same way Christians will go to people they consider to be close to God with a request for their prayers in times of need, the Church encourages its faithful to communicate with the Saints in heaven to request their prayers. The saint himself (or herself) has no temporal authority to effect the world except by his or her prayers to the divine. When a Catholic makes a devotion to a saint, a petition for intercession is made on the faithful's behalf; in this context, intercession may only be defined as the outpouring of the saint's prayers to the Lord.
What, then, is the function of Icons, statues, and other religious art so often attacked by militant protestants in their criticism of the Church? Icons serve as a reminder to us that it is possible for humans to become very close to god, that holiness is a state attainable by all. Similarly, icons remind us of the continuing presence of the saints, spiritually, in our lives--that is, the continual communion of saints with the believers of today. What of articles such as kneelers in front of statues of the Blessed Virgin? Again, this position is not to be confused with supplication to the saint as if he or she were a demigod; the act of kneeling is directed prayerfully toward God and temporally, that is, in the attitude of a disciple, toward the representation of the saint. In other words, when one kneels in front of the Virgin, he demonstrates his willingness to learn from the spiritual expressions of the Mother of God as he converses with her. In this context, one may say that he is 'praying to a saint' in such a sense that he is speaking in a spiritual sense to that saint; the definition of prayer as postulated by Saint Thomas Aquinas is 'to bare your mind to heaven', which is very appropriate to the spiritual conversation one in communion with a saint is striving to attain.
What of miracles ascribed to saints, such as faith healing? Again, one must remember that the temporal event was not the direct intercession of the saint but the expression of the saint's prayers on the petitioner's behalf. Say not that 'Saint A----- healed the boy', but that 'Saint A-----'s fervent prayer moved the Lord to heal the boy'. Regarding miracles that are spectacular in nature, that is, an outward manifestation connected to the saint (Such as a statue of Mary reputed to weep), these are manifestations of the Saint's spiritual presence effected by the divine in order to strengthen the faith of those who see the sign or wonder. The saint, on his or her own, being a noncorporeal (spiritual) entity, has no power whatever to effect the material world except by the intervention of the omnipresent God.
Does this mean that the 'Cult of the Saints' is nonexistent? Sadly, no. For the uneducated, it is very easy to confuse the legitimate teaching of the church with the paganistic leanings that seem to be inherent to the human mind. It is very true that peasants across the world pray to saints in the same manner (and more often) that they pray to God; this, however, is not the wish of the Church and is by no means representative of correct Catholic thought.
In closing, one may ask why saints are needed at all in the Christian faith. Can one not pray directly to God? Does one really need an intercessor? These are questions more prevalent in Protestant criticism than in the minds of Catholics, but they deserve recognition. To understand the canon of saints, one must realize that they were each and every one ordinary people--people who felt the calling of God to greater things and put aside their personal desires to that end. In that capacity, saints serve as models for our own behavior; not only that, but there is a great difference between the extant spirit of a saint and the incomprehensible mind of God. When we communicate with saints and ask for their prayers, we can receive purified human compassion--compassion of imperfect, but exemplary, beings who are like us in ways that the first and third parts of the trinity will never be. This is the basis of all devotion to saints and especially the Blessed Mother; their complete humanity (as opposed to the mysteriously complete humanity and complete divinity of Christ) places them closer to our understanding and closer to our personal sympathies. The saints walked where we walk; they wept as we weep, and felt as we feel. They speak of Christ to us.