Catholic devotion to the saints is often somewhat misunderstood by non-Catholics. To many, I suppose, Catholics seem to have a nearly pantheistic approach, as we turn to this saint or that one in prayer to ask them for help with our daily needs.
We don't, of course, worship the saints; nor do we pray "to" them in the sense in which that is usually meant (though, of course, as a shorthand you will hear a Catholic ask "Did you pray to St. Anthony?" when an object is lost). When someone refers to praying "to" a saint, he simply means that he is asking that saint to intercede for him to God. It is always God who answers our prayers.
Why, then, turn to the saints at all? It is simply because they have gone before us to Heaven; having endured this earthly life, they each followed God's call to holiness in an exemplary way. By thinking about them, reading about their lives and studying their journeys to God we can learn much to help us with our own daily struggles and tasks. Because they so well learned how to imitate Christ, we can learn to imitate Him too by imitating them.
The various traditions regarding saints' patronage of this or that cause, profession, etc. arose usually out of some incident in the saint's life, or some concern he or she had, or some promise he or she made in this life, or some similar thing. Thus, many Catholics seek St. Anthony's help to recover a lost object because, according to the Saints.SQPN.com website:
One source of the well-known patronage for the recovery of lost objects comes from a legend that, long after Anthony’s death, his old prayer book was kept as a treasured relic, and one day it disappeared. People prayed for help in finding the lost item, a novice found it and returned it; he later admitted that he had “borrowed” the book and returned it after receiving a vision of an angry Anthony.
From the same website, here are some interesting patron saints:
- Patron saint against mice and rats, or the fear of the same: St. Gertrude of Nivelles
- Patron saint against the opposition of Church authorities: St. Joan of Arc
- Patron saint of philatelists: St. Gabriel the Archangel
- Patron saint against nightmares: St. Raphael the Archangel
- Patron saint against in-law problems: St. Adelaide of Burgandy
- Patron saint of lawsuits lost unjustly: St. Nicholas
- Patron saint of Texas: Our Lady of the Annunciation