What is a Saint?
According to St. Paul, a “saint” is a follower of Christ (Col 1:2). In that way, we are all saints. However, over the centuries, the word “saint” has come to mean a person who has lived a life of great charity and heroic virtue. In that way, we are not saints…unless, of course, you use the definition of Fr. Bernard Carges: “A saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.”
Veneration of Saints
Very early in Church history, certain individuals became identified as noteworthy of praise and honor. At first, these were the martyrs who gave their life in defense of their faith, but later these were extended to others whose lives touched many people. Since it is a common Christian pratice to ask others to pray for you, people felt that those that had died and had gone to heaven, and thus, were alive in Christ, would be the perfect people to ask to pray for you since they were close to God. Thus began the practice of calling on the saints for help, and giving them praise and honor. This is officially called invocations and veneration. This is to be differentiated from the praise, adoration and worship that is given to God. Only God is worthy of our adoration and worship.
Canonization of Saints
The Church believes that all of those who have died and gone to heaven are saints. Who goes to heaven is determined by God. The Gospels tell us that if you believe in Jesus, even if you die, you will have eternal life, but Jesus, also, tells us (Matthew 25:31-46) that many may claim to be Jesus’ followers, but if they do not help the least of God’s people, they will not inherit the kingdom.
In the early Church, many were proclaimed by the people to be saints. If these were martyrs, it was assumed that they were indeed with Christ in Heaven, but for those who died natural deaths, the possibility existed that they may not be in heaven, for no one knows the mind of God. Thus, the Church instituted the process of canonization.
First, the Church intensely examines the life of a perspective saint. Second, a sign that this person is in heaven is given when two documented miracles can be attributed to the intercession of this person by prayer. For instance, let us pretend that there is a possible saint named “Jenny”. “Jenny” lived a good life and died. Now, someone in desperate trouble calls on “Jenny” in prayer and asks her to intercede with God. If a miracle happens after this, and is documented as being unexplainable by natural means, then “Jenny” has a miracle attributed to her.
After canonization, the Church allows:
- public veneration of this saint (please note: veneration is NOT worship).
- the saint to be included in public prayers.
- churches to be named in the saint’s honor.
- the saint to be included in the Mass and Liturgy of the Hours.
- a day assigned to the saint on the liturgical calendar.
- pictorial representation of the saint.
- public veneration of the saint’s relics.
What are Relics?
Relics are either the bodies of the saints, parts of their bodies, or something used of touched by a saint. There are three kinds of relics:
- first-class – a part of a saint’s body.
- second-class – something used by the saint.
- third-class – an object touched to a first-class relic.
The veneration of relics comes from the tradition of the early church of celebrating Mass in the Roman Catacombs (underground tombs in Rome) where martyrs were buried and protected Roman Law from being disturbed. As a result of this practice, a first-class relic of a martyr id placed in the altar of a newly consecrated Church. Please check our Church History page for information about what relics we have in our Church.
What is an Incorruptable Saint?
Certain Saints, at the time of their death or many years later after they were exhumed, were found to be incorruptable. That is to say, their bodies did not decompose. In many cases this was before any embalming or mummification pratices were used in Europe, so there is no scientific explaination for this lack of decay. In incorrupt saint can appear almost as if alive or may look like a mummy with darked skin drawn tight, but the body retains a suppleness and has no signs of decay. Some recent research has shown that a few saints thought to be incorrupt, were actually preserved through some process, but this is a small percentage of those saints called incorrupt. Many incorrupt saints are on display in churches throughout Europe.
Some curious facts:
- Some incorrupt saints have undergone decapitation or having their tongues or hands cut off after death. The part of the body removed is then displayed in one church while the rest of the body is displayed elsewhere (even this devout Deacon finds this pretty gruesome).
- Not all saints incorrupt, and no one can figure out why those that are incorrupt have remained that way.
- The Russian Communists hoping to capture the imagination of the religious serfs of Russia, preserved Lenin’s body and put it on display like an incorrupt saint. Unlike the incorrupt saints, 70 doctors and a lot of equipment and chemicals keep Lenin for decomposing
A patron is a benefactor or protector. Since very early in Church history, there were some saints regarded as protectors and intercessors for persons, churches and dioceses and for the Church universal. The name taken in Baptism and Confirmation is frequently of a patron saint. Very early on, saints became associated with certain causes or professions and became the patrons of those causes and professions. They are called upon as asked to pray for us in these fields.
Some curious examples:
- Patron Saint of Artists – St. Luke – even though Luke was a Doctor, he was believed to have painted the first icon. St. Luke is also the patron of Doctors (along with several other saints).
- Patron Saint of Cooks – St. Lawrence – Lawrence was a Deacon who died as a martyr by being roasted alive on a large griddle by the Romans. It is said (and this is not a joke) that during his sufferings, Lawrence told his torturers: “Turn me over I am done on this side.”
- Patron Saint of Dentists – St. Apollonia – her teeth were pulled out by her Roman torturers.
- Patron Saint of Headache suffers – St. Teresa of Avila – she suffered from extreme migraines
- Patron Saint of Paratroopers – St. Michael the Archangel – If I jump from a plane, I hope I have a pair of wings!
- Patron Saint of Voting – St. Chad – no kidding! St. Chad was appointed bishop of York by an English King. The king’s son appointed someone else. When the new Archbishop of Canterbury arrived in England, he accused Chad of being improperly selected as bishop. Chad humbly stepped down. The Archbisop was so impressed by Chad’s response, that he asked the king to make Chad bishop in another diocese.
To find out more about the saints, check out these books:
Lives of the Saints(2 volumes) by Rev. Hugo Hoever and published by Catholic Book Publishing Co.
Pocket Dictionary of Saints by John J. Delaney and published by Image Books.
Butler’s Lives of the Saints – there are many editions, but this is considered the definitive book on saints.