The Catholic Church honours the saints. Saints are persons who lived a life of holiness and virtue, following Christ’s call to be “perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt.5, 48). The Church constantly reminds all believers of this unique call of God to holiness.

The saints of the Church are not moulded in a stereotyped model. The wide variety of their lives reflect the times and places in which they lived, their cultural backgrounds and the way their lives glowed with the holiness of God. They truly manifest the catholicity of the Church.

Saints: Our Patrons and Protectors

At baptism every Catholic is christened with the name of a saint, whom the baptised person takes as his or her patron saint. A patron saint is considered to be a special protector. He or she will intercede from heaven for the person. The patron saint provides a model of life for emulation as the person tries to live a life of faith and holiness. A Catholic observes the feast day of the patron saint as his or her name feast, and prays to God for the blessings and graces he or she need through the saint’s intercession. Everyone should try to read and understand more about one’s patron saint.

Saints: Worthy of Honour and Veneration

The word ‘saint’ is derived from the Latin word, sanctus, which means, ‘one who is holy’. The word ‘saint’ is applied to those who have been canonized by the Church and presented to the universal Church as persons worthy of honour on account of their heroic life of virtue, holiness or witness through martyrdom. In the New Testament the word ‘saint’ is used in a broader sense to include all Christ’s faithful (Acts 9:13). Through union with God, the baptised share in the holiness of God.

Sanctity cuts across not only time and place but also geographical boundaries and social class. The galaxy of saints whom the Church presents to us for veneration and imitation range from the first century to the twentieth century. We can be sure that God will continue to raise outstanding models of holiness and faith in our own times and for the times to come.

We do not have accurate record about how many saints are there in the Church. The names of many Christian martyrs in the past were not duly recorded. Some of them were thrown before beasts or thrown into the sea. Some were put to death in genocides. Some of them were even denied a proper burial. Though the cause of canonisation of many persons is introduced, some of them are dropped due to want of evidence or lack of proper documentation on their life and sanctity. Hence, most of these saints are known to God alone. After Vatican II the Calendar of Saints was revised. Some unofficial listing shows 2,565 entries, but it is not possible to accurately show the exact number of saints before 1000 A.D. Some estimate the number to be about 4000. Between 1000 and 1980, only 423 persons have been officially canonized by Rome.

Martyrs and Saints: Examples of Courage and Fidelity

The early Church considered the martyrs as perfect Christians as they laid down their lives for Christ and the Church. The word martyr comes from the Greek word, martyerion, which means a witness, denoting one who voluntarily suffers death for the Faith or some Christian virtue. The Christians of the early Church, oppressed by persecution, looked up to the martyrs as saints and outstanding examples of faith.

They believed that those who had died for the faith must be especially close to God, and priests began to offer Mass at the tombs of the martyrs. Later, their remains were removed from tombs to altars in churches which were named in honour of these martyrs. From this grew the expression “raised to the honours of the altar.” The faithful began to venerate them and invoke their intercession. The remembrance of the martyrs had from its beginning, the characteristics typical of true veneration. It was distinguished clearly from the memory of other deceased persons in that the date and place of martyrdom of the martyrs and their burial places were held sacred not only by their relatives but by the whole Church, and the anniversary was entered in the public calendar. Furthermore, whereas the usual commemoration of the dead was dominated by a sense of mourning and intercession for their eternal rest, in the memory of the martyrs, a feeling of joy prevailed. Added to this was the conviction that they being united with Christ, could intercede on behalf of the living.

By the third century, the veneration reserved for martyrs was extended to those who defended the faith or suffered for it though they did not die as martyrs. This category of saints came to be called Confessors. This was further extended to veneration of those holy men and women who were outstanding for their exemplary Christian life, especially austerity, penitence, as well as those who excelled in the Catholic doctrines (Doctors), in apostolic zeal (Bishops, Pastors) or in charity and evangelical spirit.

The Canonization Process

The Catholic Church follows a stringent and elaborate procedure to declare a person a saint

  • The procedure laid down by the Catholic Church in declaring a person a saint is found in the Apostolic Constitution Divinus Perfectionis Magister, promulgated by John Paul II on January 25, 1983.

  • To begin a cause it is necessary for at least 5 years to have passed since the death of the candidate. This is to allow greater balance and objectivity in evaluating the case.

  • The bishop of the diocese in which the person whose beatification is being requested is responsible for beginning the investigation. The promoter group (Actor Causae): diocese, parish, religious congregation, association, asks the bishop through the postulator for the opening of the investigation. The bishop, once the nulla osta (permission to go ahead) of the Holy See is obtained, forms a diocesan tribunal for this purpose. Thereafter, witnesses are called before the tribunal to recount concrete facts on the exercise of Christian virtues, the theological virtues: faith, hope and charity, and the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude, and others specific to his state in life. In addition, all documents regarding the candidate would be gathered. When these demands are satisfied may be declared Servant of God.

  • Once the diocesan investigation is done, the acts and documentation are passed on to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The Public Copy used for further work is put together here. The Postulator, who is placed in Rome, follows the preparation of the Positio, or summary of the documentation that proves the heroic exercise of virtue, under the direction of a Relator of the Congregation for the Cause of Saints. The Position undergoes an examination (theological) by nine theologians who give their vote. If the majority of the theologians are in favour, the cause is passed on for examination by cardinals and bishops who are members of the Congregation. If their judgment is favourable, the Prefect of the Congregation presents the results of the entire course of the cause to the Pope, who gives his approval and authorizes the Congregation to draft the relavant decree. The public reading and promulgation of the decree follows declaring the person as the Servant of God.

  • For the beatification of the Servant of God a miracle attributed to the person duly verified, is necessary. The required miracle must be proven through the appropriate canonical investigation, following a procedure analogous to that for heroic virtues. This one too is concluded with the relevant decree. Once the two decrees are promulgated (regarding the heroic virtues and the miracle) the Pope decides on beatification, which is the concession of public worship, limited to a particular sphere. With the beatification the candidate receives the title of Blessed.

  • For canonization another miracle is needed, attributed to the intercession of the Blessed and having occurred after his/her beatification. The methods for ascertaining the affirmed miracle are the same as those followed for beatification. Canonization is understood as the concession of public worship in the Universal Church. This involves the infallibility of the Pope. After Canonization, the Blessed acquires the title of Saint.

In the beginning, popular fame and approval by people were the most important criterion for a person’s holiness. Local Christian communities spontaneously began to venerate people who were considered outstanding for their holiness. Later, in order to prevent abuses, the ecclesiastical authority regulated the decision concerning who could be worthy of the honour of being considered a saint. Such official proclamation of a person’s sanctity came to be called ‘canonization’. Canonization is an infallible declaration by the Pope that a person, who died as a martyr and or practised Christian virtues to a heroic degree, is now in heaven and is worthy of honour and imitation by all the faithful. Such a declaration is preceded by the process of beatification and another detailed investigation concerning the person’s reputation for holiness, writings, and miracles ascribed to his or her intercession after death.

Public official honour always required approval of the bishop of the place. St. Martin of Tours, who died in 397, was one of the earliest saints to be venerated as a saint though he did not die a martyr. The first official canonization by a Pope for the universal Church was that of St. Ulrich by Pope John XV in 993. Pope Alexander III reserved the process of canonization to the Holy See in 1171. In 1588 Pope Sixtus V established the Sacred Congregation of Rites for the principal purpose of handling causes for beatification and canonization. This function is now entrusted to the Congregation for the Cause of Saints.

In 1969 Pope Paul VI introduced reforms in the process of canonization. Even after the reforms, the process continues to be long and complicated.

We may briefly sum up the process thus: If a person lived a most exemplary life, or died a martyr, his or her cause for canonization may be introduced. The cause may be requested by the faithful or may be begun by the local bishop or by Rome. The first stage is the investigative process in the diocese; this is known as the Ordinary Process. If the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (formerly called the Congregation of Rites) decides that the person truly died a martyr’s death or that he or she practiced virtue to a heroic degree, a detailed examination of his/her life, writings, reputation, and at least two miracles attributed to his or her intercession is made. This is called the Apostolic Process, or Papal Process. This signals the Introduction of the cause for beatification. The Servant of God is declared Venerable, and the process continues. Martyrs do not need the same proof of miracles in this part of the process.

In order to ensure accuracy and fairness, a Promoter of the Faith, popularly called the “Devil’s Advocate,” is appointed to raise any objections to the cause. If the Congregation’s findings are positive, the person is beatified, that is, he or she is declared Blessed or Beati, such a person may be honoured locally or in specific religious communities or dioceses.

After the beatification, there is a re-examination of the evidence, and there must be proof of two new miracles through the intercession of the Blessed. Miracles have been considered, from the early times, proof of God’s approval of the life of the saint. The cures accepted must be of an organic nature and must be instantaneous. On completion of this process, the canonization takes place in a solemn ceremony in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, where the Pope declares to the whole Church that this particular person is a saint in heaven. The saint’s veneration is extended to the universal Church. He or she may henceforth, be named in the public prayers of the Church, including the Mass and Divine Office, and churches may be dedicated to him or her. The feast of the saint is usually observed on the day of his or her death. This day is considered as the day he or she is born into heaven. The feast day is incorporated into the liturgical calendar.

The essential portion of a canonization decree states:

For the honour of the holy and undivided Trinity; for the exaltation of the Catholic faith and the increase of Christian life; with the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and with our own authority, after mature deliberation and with the divine assistance, often implored, with the counsel of many of our brothers we decree and define that (name) is a saint and we inscribe him (her) in the Catalogue of Saints, stating that he (she) shall be venerated in the universal Church with pious devotion. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The official listing of Saints and the Blessed is contained in the Roman Martyrology and related decrees issued after its last publication. The Church regards all persons in heaven as saints, not just those who have been officially canonized. Once officially a person is declared a saint, he or she is worthy of honour in liturgical worship throughout the universal Church. Saints are canonized not only to intercede before the throne of God, but also to afford those on earth models of perfection. It may be noted that canonization does not make anyone a saint; it is an official declaration by the Church that a person is a saint.

Veneration of the Saints

The Church does not adore the saints. Adoration is reserved only to God as He alone is worthy of all adoration. Adoration to God is called latria. Catholics venerate or honour the saints. Veneration or the Cult of Saints in the Church, called dulia, of holy persons who have died and are in glory with God in heaven includes honouring them and petitioning them for their intercession with God. First and foremost among those who are worthy of such veneration is the Blessed Virgin Mary. The kind of veneration given to her is called hyperdulia. Liturgical veneration is given only to saints who are officially recognised by the Church; private veneration may be given to anyone thought to be in heaven. The veneration of saints is essentially different from the adoration given to God alone. By its very nature, however, all veneration given to the saints culminate in the worship of God. God is glorified in his saints.

According to Vatican II dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (no.50): “It is supremely fitting.... that we love those friends and fellow heirs of Jesus Christ, who are also our brothers and sisters and extraordinary benefactors, that we render due thanks to God for them and “suppliantly invoke them and have recourse to their prayers, their power and help in obtaining benefits from God through his Son Jesus Christ, Our Lord, who is our sole Redeemer and Saviour. “For by its very nature every genuine testimony of love which we show to those in heaven tends towards and terminates in Christ,” who is the crown of all saints.” Through the saint it tends towards and terminates in God, who is wonderful in his saints and is magnified in them.” In the concluding phrase of the Divine Praises we pray: “Blessed be God in His angels and in His saints.”

Relics, Statues, Pictures

The place of importance attached to relics in the Church is part of such veneration. Relics are the physical remains and effects of saints, which are considered worthy of veneration in as much as they are representative of persons in glory with God. Primary among the relics are parts of the bodies of saints, and instruments of their penance and death; secondary are objects which had some contact with their persons. In line with norms laid down by the Council of Trent and subsequent enactments, discipline concerning relics is subject to control by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

The Church permits the use of statues and pictures of saints to be used to aid the faithful in honouring the memory of the saints. Their use is to be guided by the bishop and other church leaders. Abuses like attaching superstitious powers or giving them more importance than the sacraments are to be avoided. The faithful need to be instructed in the proper and mature use of relics, statues, pictures etc. of the saints. Ignorance led to abuses in the Middle Ages, which led the Protestant Reformers to reject all such visible symbols of faith.

Our Communion with the Saints

The Mystical Body of Christ is composed of the saints in heaven who form the Church Triumphant, of the faithful on earth who form the Church Militant, and of the souls in Purgatory who form the Church Suffering. The saints intercede for the faithful on earth and for the souls in Purgatory; the faithful on earth honour the saints in heaven, and pray for their intercession and imitate their virtues. Imitating the saints does not mean trying to become a carbon copy of that saint. God has created every individual in his or her uniqueness. We do not blindly imitate a saint, but follow his or her example of holiness and fidelity to the Gospel.

When we read through the long list of saints we find that each of them is unique. Each of them has left a unique stamp of holiness for successive generations to emulate. No two saints are exactly the same. However, as someone rightly said, “Saints come in clusters”, and therefore, it is correct to say that many saints have influenced each other. It is not difficult, therefore, to find similarities between one saint and another. In the liturgy of the Church November 2 is observed every year as the Feast of All Saints. On this day we not only honour the saints whose feast we do not individually celebrate, but also celebrate the communion of saints. The saints form a communion. In the Profession of Faith we declare our faith in this communion when we say: “I believe in the communion of saints.”

© George Plathottam SDB, Treasury of Saints, Don Bosco Publications, Guwahati, 1999, pp.7-17.