Making Sense of Saints


Making Sense of Saints
Patricia Ann Kasten
(Our Sunday Visitor, 2004)

This is like a handbook on a variety of “saint” topics, with clear and lively explanations, and lots of examples.

The making of a saint
“Saint” comes from the French seinte, which comes from the Latin sanctus (“holy”) and sancire (“consecrated”). The original Greek word was hagios (a word used for holy and sacred things).

In the early days, it was usually “popular outcry” (vox populi) that led to people being declared saints. The public practically demanded the recognition of a “saintly” person, based on his or her well-known holiness and life of good works.

The earliest formal canonisation on record is that of St. Ulrich of Ausburg, canonised by Pope John XV in 993. In 1234, Pope Gregory IX brought the process under the Pope’s purview and in 1588, Pope Sixtus V instituted the Sacred Congregation for Rites, the precursor of today’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

Therefore, the process now formally included “ecclesiastical authority”, with a “competent bishop” in charge of each case, but the sensus fidelium (“sense of the faithful”) is still important in modern times, as in the case of the sainthood causes of, for example, Frs. Jean-Baptiste Marie Vianney and Damien of Molokai in the 19th century, as it was in the sainthood causes of, for example, Lydia of Thyatira in the 1st century and Nicholas of Myra in the 4th century.

The earliest saints
The first groups of people who were recognised as saints were those in direct contact with Jesus, such as the Apostles, and, naturally, His earthly family members, Mother Mary and St. Joseph, as well as those who spread the Good News in the Apostolic Age, such as St. Paul.

The first formal saints were martyrs, with St. Stephen the first among them. “Martyr” is from the Greek martus (“witness”), originally a term referring to the Apostles, and our history tells us there were countless martyrs in the early centuries, mostly victims of Roman persecution.

The next group that was recognised were the “confessors of the faith” (from the Latin confiteor, meaning “profession”, which is also the name of the “I confess” prayer at Mass), those who had suffered for the sake of the faith, hence also being “witnesses” in publicly confessing their faith, but were not killed for it.

Some martyrs and confessors were disciples of the Apostles.

Another group of early saints were the monastics, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, some of whom were also students of the Apostles, and students of these students. Monastics lived apart from the world, in imitation of Jesus’ life of “poverty, obedience and chastity”, with the aim of coming closer to God. Some lived in community while others lived and prayed in solitude.

Early monastics include St. Mary of Egypt and St. Jerome. The first formal monastic rules were drawn up by St. Benedict of Nursia in the early 6th century, from whom we have the Benedictine motto ora et labora (“pray and work”).

By medieval times, monasteries had become the centres of towns and from there emerged religious orders (for example, the Franciscans, Norbertines, Dominicans and Trappists), and more saints of course, such as St. Francis of Assisi and St. Anthony of Padua. Thus, with all the spirituality and teaching that came out of  monasteries, we all can track our way back to the monastics!


There is much evidence in the catacombs that from the early days, Christians venerated the relics of saints. For example, the first formal churches were built over or near the graves of martyrs. Early Christians also chose to be buried near or within the burial ground of martyrs.

The Second Council of Nicaea (787) ruled that all new churches should have relics of saints interred in their altars. (This was no longer compulsory after Vatican II.)

Relics are classified as follows:
First class     the bodies or body parts of saints, any instruments of Christ’s Passion
Second classobjects clearly associated with the saint, such as what they wore often or items they used
Third class    objects that had some contact with or which have touched first or second class relics or the graves of saints

Buying or selling relics is part of the sin of simony and the Church never approved this practice (nor the sale of indulgences).

The canonisation process
Canonisation is from the word “canon” (as in “canon laws”), from the Greek kanon (“straight”) and Hebrew kaneh (“need”).

The Canon of Saints is the list of all the holy people whose lives led them straight to God and what canonisation means is that the Church believes that this particular person is with God and can intercede for those still alive, and that his or her life and work are an exemplary model for us in our efforts in leading holy lives.

Servus Dei – Servant of God
When a “saint” is identified, the process to declare him or her a saint starts at the diocese where he or she died, under the charge of the bishop of the diocese (there are some exceptions, such as for John Paul II, for whom the process began in the diocese where he worked).

There is a waiting period of five years, to give time for excitement to die down and for the real picture to emerge (the Pope can decide to shorten the waiting time, as in the cases of John Paul II and Teresa of Calcutta). After the five years, the bishop seeks approval to start the sainthood cause.  When the petition is approved, the proposed saint is called “Servant of God”.

The diocese then collects proof of the “virtuous” life of the Servant of God, and also studies his or her writings (if there are formal works). When there is enough evidence, the bishop hands over the case to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which puts everything together and sends the Decree of Heroic Virtues to the Pope for his approval. Once this is approved, the proposed saint is called “Venerable”.

Evidence of a miracle attributed to the proposed saint is then sought, with the local bishop playing an important part here. The criteria are that the miracle must be “immediate”, “complete”, “permanent” and “unexplainable by scientific means”.

When the miracle is confirmed, the proposed saint is beatified (“raised to the altar”).

A second miracle (after beatification) is then sought, and when confirmed, he or she is declared a saint.

Doctors of the Church
“Doctor” is from the Latin docere (to teach, show, inform) and is a term for theologians of the highest order. All Doctors of the Church are saints who were the master teachers of our Faith.

The first four Doctors, declared at the end of the 13th century, were Sts. Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine and Gregory the Great, followed by St. Thomas Aquinas in 1568. The long gap between St. Gregory (1298) and St. Thomas shows the rarity of Doctors.

Patron saints
“Patron” is from the Latin patronus, which is from the word for “father”. During the time of the Roman empire, the patron was one’s “legal advocate”, and patronus also referred to senators and former owners of freed slaves.

It is common practice to turn to our patron saints for their intercession, and they could include the saints we were named after, saints whose feast days are on the day we were born, saints whom we came to learn about (and from) and became devoted to, or the patron saint of particular occupations or places.

Depiction of saints in art
Certain symbols are used for different types of saints.

Palm branch, a symbol of victory (Rev 7:14) – for martyrs

White clothing, symbolising purity, a lamb or crown of flowers – for virgins, e.g. St. Agnes

Books – for the evangelists and Doctors of the Church, e.g. St. Teresa of Avila

Church – for those who founded a church, diocese or abbey, e.g. Sts. Jerome, Ambrose, Cyril and Methodius

Crown – for those who were royalty on earth and also to show “heavenly reward”, e.g. St. Elizabeth of Hungary

Shells – for pilgrims, e.g. St. Augustine

Lilies, symbolising purity of heart, e.g. for Mother Mary, St. Joseph, St. Anthony of Padua

There are also other recognisable symbols, such as the religious habit of the saint, or objects specifically related to the saint, e.g. the green shamrock for St. Patrick, the arrows in St. Sebastian (the instrument of death), and the key in St. Peter’s hand.

Halo is from the Greek halos (“disk of the sun”), and is a symbol appropriated from ancient Egypt and Greece.

Halos started to be used for Jesus around the 3rd century, usually when representing Him in a “royal” context. By the 5th century, halos were also used for Mother Mary, angels and saints.

Why bother about the Saints?
It is important to note the difference between the honour we give to God and to the saints. The book explains the Greek terms dulia (connoting obedience) and latria (connoting homage). Latria is always and only used for the honour we give to God while dulia refers to the honour we give to other human beings, in this case the saints (hyperdulia for Mother Mary). What the phrases “pray to Mary” and “pray to saints” really mean is to ask Mary or the saints for their help in praying for us (intercession).

The CCC explains that saints “show the power of the Spirit alive within the Church and sustain the hope of believers through their examples and intercession.”

The familiar phrase communion of saints (communion sanctorum – “the participation in holy, spiritual things”, “the participation of the holy ones”) encapsulates the universality of the Catholic context we are all a part of, in which the Church Militant, Church Suffering and Church Triumphant are one.

source: Happy Saints

Some prayers composed by saints have become so famous and inspiring that they have been turned into song.

Prayer of St. Francis (Make me a channel of your peace)




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