I'd like to share with you a few exchanges. Feel free to correct me if I've made a mistake, add your own thoughts, or share any similar experiences.
Note: My responses are in normal text, their questions will be in italics.
I have several questions for you, as a Protestant Christian.
1. Why do you pray to the saints as opposed to praying directly to God? What makes the saints "special?"
Prayer to the saints is expressed in the form of seeking their intercession, such as "St. Maximilian, help me overcome my addiction to alcohol." While the syntax makes it seems like Benedict is doing the work, the meaning of the common phrase is "St. Maximilian Kolbe, patron of sufferers/addicts, pray to our Lord Jesus on my behalf that, through his grace, I may overcome this addiction and stay dedicated to the means necessary to fight it."
We faithful, even in life, look to examples of holy men and women not just to emulate them but to ask them to help us know God and grow closer to Him. Prayer to Jesus Christ, the High Priest, is always good. The problem is that we in our sinful state can't even see the depth and depravity of our sin and, as such, we fail to ask for what we really need. We rightly seek the help of others in our life. For example: we seek a doctor to diagnose our symptoms (e.g., fever, soreness in certain areas) are he finds that we have an infection, so he prescribes the proper medicine. A holy man or woman, learned in Scriptures and the soul, is able to find the root of our sin and ask Christ to send the appropriate cure.
Some may say, "But Christ knows what we need." He does know, but He also wants us to know and understand. How did he help His people know and understand His word that he preached? Through the prophets who proclaimed His word. Through judges, kings, and scribes who parsed out and educated others about the Law. Through the Apostles charged with preaching the Gospel. God, Jesus, used men as His messengers. The Apostles also would inform Jesus of the plight of His followers. Of course Jesus knew, but He encouraged and sought that His disciples had an awareness of this.
The saints in heaven were Jesus' faithful servants on earth. They, having received the fullness of His promise (life forever with Him) carry out His work with Him. The saints, in a sense, assist us as being both personal friend and spiritual icon by which we can more clearly see Christ and the conduit through which we can receive His grace more effectively. Scripture tells again and again the powers holy ones can achieve through their prayer. We sinners, though our prayers are true, may not be powerful. When we pray we seek, in some fashion, the power of God--this can come through consolation, correction, and many other ways. We are asking the saints, as followers asked John the Baptist, "who is the one who will save us?" We saw that John preached alongside Jesus for a short while, and he preformed powerful deeds. But all in service of pointing us to Christ, especially when we don't know how to do it ourselves.
Saints have been given a special power in the Spirit to guide others to Christ.
2. Is it true that you have to be baptized as an integral part of your salvation?
This is tough on a number of levels. If you believe in Christ, yes. Baptism in the foundation of eternal life, the waters by which we die to death and are born to eternal life. It's forming a covenant, one that cannot be undone but, like a covenant, can be broken.
3. Why are there extra books in the Catholic Bible as opposed to Protestant Bibles? (Like Maccabees.)
Many ways to go about this. One reason is to observe why those books were taken out of the Christian canon in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Many Protestants point to the Jewish Council (of Jerusalem? I think) where the Jews banned books like Maccabeus and Sirach because they were written in Greek.
Some other sources claim that those written after the cutoff, which is Ezra and Nehemiah (post-exilic), were too new to be accepted. The basis for this wasn't founded on any understanding of revelation and was, some argue, done simply for the purity of the language. Luther argued the same way for Sirach and Maccabeus, but we've found Hebrew manuscripts of Sirach and Maccabeus I. Is the late authorship a problem? Then then New testament poses a problem since it is a continuation of revelation in between which Sirach, Maccabeus, and the others were written.
Some claim, "Shouldn't the Jews decide what their canon is?" Yes, but we should also be scrupulous about how the canon came to be--which requires a lot of research.
There were actually numerous canons proposed by Jerusalem, Alexandria, and diaspora communities. The same goes for the New Testament.
The NT actually stopped the period Scripture could be added at about 115AD (I think), since John the Apostle died in 105/8 AD. Revelation ended with the Apostles, those directly taught by Christ, who is the Revealer and ultimate Revelation in one. Many of the "new Gospels" like Thomas, Peter, Judas were written after the death of the Apostles, often in the 140-180AD period, where the name of the Apostles were being invoked in order to grant legitimacy to their Scripture. This was debunked by a combination of cross-referencing Scripture with many Gnostic-infused claims in those new Gospels and an appeal (first) to the Tradition of the communities founded by the Apostles that didn't preach what these Gospels said. Historical they may be, but they were deemed to be not Inspired.
Maccabeus and Sirach, on the other hand, came from the community of the faithful and were recognized as such by many of the faithful. They were in line with what many believed. It should be noted that the Sadduces, I believe, established that canon that excluded those OT books. They also denied the resurrection, angels, and demons, all of which Christ affirmed.
Christ is also shown when he quotes various OT passages to prefer the Greek (Septuagint) and Scriptures of the Qumran tradition, their canon is what Christians adopted, which did in fact have the books that remain canonical in the Catholic Bible.
4. Why do we need the Pope as a head of authority?
The Pope is the Bishop of Rome, the diocese of the great Apostles and Martyrs Peter and Paul and a host of martyrs. The Pope's role is not one of "master" but of pastor, just as Jesus established the Apostles as shepherds alongside him. This is how the Apostles formed communities. They had the authority to teach and preach. All are charged to preach the good news, but is whatever they teach right and in accord with the whole of the faithful.
The pope is not there to be a dictator, but to govern the people, seek council from other pastors, and to speak with the spirit of authority handed down through Peter when matters of faith and morals are in a difficult dispute. He seeks council in these times but in the end there must be a voice that speaks, like Peter at Jerusalem, of a final say.
5. What is the point of purgatory and how does it fit into the scheme of eternity?
Purgatory, as its name implies, is a place of purgation and purification. Souls who are faithful to Christ in their life, yet remained mired by (venial) sins need to be cleansed of their sins. This "state of being" is a period by which a soul readies his heart to receive Christ. Since they could not do it through the blood of martyrdom or through an exemplary life of charity purgatory allows those souls who are all the same faithful to do a sort of penance to prepare themselves for heaven.
One more, from a different person.
I personally experience God in prayer, doing penance before the Father, seeking the intercession of the Son, seeking inspiration by the Spirit. I experience Him physically in the reception of the Eucharist, praying as I process that God have mercy on me, a sinner, praying that "though the reception of your Body and Blood, fill up in me what is lacking in my own flesh and spirit."
I try to listen for God in whispers, not in loud clashes. In the quiet moments among friends, in the peace of walking outside, in bed while I was suffering when sick with nothing around me but darkness. I experience God after I sin because I know its our relationship I harmed and I experience Him in the joy and consolation people find in their children, spouses, and friends.
I experienced Him, although my experiences are limited, in the death of my grandparents--that He is loving and merciful and that a life lived according to His word is worthwhile and beautiful. Living with Him gives dignity even to the scandal of death.
I've experienced Him powerfully and personally only twice--and I mean in those earth-shattering ways. Other times I've found Him reaching for me when I've fallen low and I remind myself constantly to thank Him while things are well.
He answers my prayers. He gives and He takes away.
So, what are your thoughts? My answer on baptism was brief. It's one thing to parse out quotes and citations when organizing a text, but it's another thing trying to communicate one-on-one or in public. Do you find these answers to be effective, wrong, or a little of both?
I'd enjoy discussing it with you.