I have a ton of questions about saints. My friends who aren’t Catholic are saying it’s bad and even sinful to pray to saints. They’re saying that there’s nothing special about saints that their stories aren’t true and that the Church makes up stuff and that saints are no more important than anyone else. Why do we pray to them? Why do some have such random things they’re patrons of? Why do some bodies not decompose? What is a halo, exactly? What are relics? Why does the Church let our attention be put on saints and off of Jesus?
Okay, that’s a whole lot of questions you crammed in there. Let’s take a stab…
Just to set the record straight…saints are not more important than Jesus. The Church has never said that, taught that or thought that. If someone claims that, tell them to show you where…’cause it ain’t true.
That being said, the saints are important to the life of the Church, the life of the Gospel and to life, in general, yours and mine. Put very simply, the Saints are the ones who Christ’s light shines through.
Since it’s November, and since there have been so many questions coming in lately about Saints (many that have been answered already, but some that haven’t) that I thought I’d do a one-stop, Almost everything you need to know about saints answer in this “Ask the Bible Geek” section.
1. What is a saint?
The word saint comes from the Latin word Sanctus which means “holy” or “set apart”. St. Paul first said it (Phil. 4:21) to mean all of the faithful early Christians. Our Church teaches that the saints occupy a hallowed (holy, special) place in Heaven. That place is in the presence of the Beatific vision…basically, front row center in God’s throne room.
The Church doesn’t say that every saint is named…far from it – the ones we officially call “saints” are joined by countless others who lived “saintly” lives but whom we haven’t investigated and titled “saints”, officially. By best estimates, there are over 10,000 saints that are currently named…again, most saints are not named on earth but are known in Heaven.
In fact, there are living, breathing saints around you right now…and not just in the Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta types that you see on television. There are saints in your own parish and/or neighborhood, very likely. Most of them will never enjoy “the title” on earth, but that’s okay – truly saintly people would never want the title, anyway.
2. How does someone get the title of saint?
The title of saint is conferred on someone after what is called the canonization process. The process was most formalized by Pope Alexander III in the 12th century. He restricted the prerogative of canonization to the Holy See (Vatican authority). Canonization means ‘being raised to the full honors of the altar’. (You can read more about this in the Catechism of the Catholic Church #828).
Basically, if you had someone you wanted to suggest for sainthood, you and a group would send a report to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (a Vatican group).
That congregation would research the candidate virtues, life, etc to see if the person should be recommended or not. If the Pope accepts the report from the congregation, the person in question is titled, Venerable. (Venerable means “accorded great respect due to heroic character”.)
Once venerable there are several more steps in the process in which the person’s life is exhaustively researched and examined. If alive, witnesses are contacted who knew the deceased, various people can come forward to raise objections, debates can ensue and discussions had. Also, at least two miracles must occur and be directly attributed to that saint’s intercession to God. Once that happens (if and when it does), the person is “beatified” in a ceremony by the Pope at St. Peter’s in Rome, and the person is declared “blessed.
After a period of time and a few more miracles…the “blessed” will be recommended for canonization and, eventually, named a saint at a ceremony in Rome (although there have been some canonization ceremonies that took place outside of the Vatican – i.e. in Korea in 1984).
3. Why do Catholics pray with/to saints, doesn’t that go against the Bible?
NO. Asking for intercessory prayer does not go against Scripture. In fact, the Bible encourages intercessory prayer. Normally, when people take issue with the Blessed Virgin Mary’s role or the communion of saints, it is rooted in a misunderstanding of intercession, how it works, the primacy of Jesus (which is never in question) and what we’re asking of the saints on our behalf.
Jesus Christ is our mediator and intercessor…that is what our Church teaches. That being clearly stated and understood, our Mother and brothers/sisters in Heaven are powerful intercessors of prayer for us – secondary intercessors…that join their prayers to ours, putting them at the feet of Jesus, for His glory.
Take some time and read more than you ever wanted to know about Mary and the Saints.
4. What is a halo, exactly?
It’s a popular video game…next question.
Okay – that was stupid.
A halo is a “circle of light” that is seen in artistic interpretations of saints (or saintly people). It was originally used in Greek and Roman depictions of other gods, but the early Christians began using it in connection with the light of Christ…that’s why, over the centuries, the halo began being seen and used in artistic representations of the Saints – to show how they radiate with the light of Christ, and reflect His light to the world.
5. Why do we have patron saints, and why do we have patrons for such “random” things?
While the patronages of certain saints do appear a little “random” on the surface, it’s actually quite cool. Let me explain (briefly).
Saints had hobbies and interests, just like you and me. St. Ignatius Loyola played pool. St. Charles Borromeo loved to play chess. St. Jerome played the fiddle. St. Lydwina was an ice skater. You get the idea.
Now, how does someone become a “patron” saint? Well, take St. Lydwina, for instance. She was 16 years old when she had a freak accident while ice skating. What began as a broken rib led to gangrene (it was the 14th century) and eventually, she was paralyzed. But she offered her paralysis and suffering to God, and continued to pray and meditate.
Her devotion to the Holy Eucharist grew, eventhough she was confined to her bed, and over time, she was given visions of Heaven and Purgatory and she was visited by various saints. Tradition even holds that many miracles were performed at her bedside, and many healings. So, she is the patron saint for invalids, the homebound, and ice skaters.
Now, we have a patron saint for just about everything under the sun (Eccl. 1:9), and it’s a great thing. It’s almost guaranteed that anything you like to do, there is a patron saint for – someone who lived a holy life (worthy of sainthood), and did so enjoying the same thing you do.
In addition, patrons are given to us for special situations (death, illness, divorce, etc), special places (your hometown or native country), or special needs (hopeless causes, schoolwork, lost articles, etc.).
Spend sometime online to learn more about different patrons. I’ll bet you find some saints who you have a lot in common with.
6. What are relics and what do they have to do with saints?
Relics are special things associated with saints. While there are literally millions of relics in the world, not all are “official relics”. In fact, our Church is really careful about officially naming something a relic, and rarely guarantees that a relic is authentic.
There are different stages or “classes” or relics.
First class relics are actual body parts of Saints, like bones or limbs…or tongues. (Gross sounding – I know, but really interesting)
Second class relics are usually something used by the saint, like books or rosaries or some other special object…clothing would also usually count as a second class relic.
Third class relics are usually anything touched by the saint or touched to a first class relic.
Many altars (in churches just like yours) actually have a small piece of bone from a saint placed/built within them. Ask your parish priest is yours does…
7. Why do we choose a saint name for Confirmation?
Actually, my good friend Fr. J already answered this one really well…have a look.
8. What about the “weird” things like saints’ bodies not decomposing, what’s up with that?
Some saints have “supernatural”, inexplicable miracles associated with their bodies and senses, they include bilocation, incorruptibility, levitation, locution, the odor of sanctity and the stigmata, to name a few.
It’s interesting that not much is reported about these miracles, but they are real. Literally, thousands of witnesses attest to seeing things like levitation, seeing saints in two places at once (bilocation), touching the stigmata and watching blood flow from the wounds in the hands and feet (the wounds of Christ), and many, myself included, have seen incorruptible saints.
If you ever have the chance to travel, especially throughout Europe, you might have the opportunity to see an incorruptible saint – their body doesn’t decay at the normal rate. That incorruptibility is seen as a sign of their incredible spirituality – St. Bernadette, St. Clare of Assisi, St. Vincent de Paul, Pope Pius X, St. John Vianney, St. Frances Cabrini – the list goes on and on. Most of these saints have been dead for several hundred years, but their bodies are in amazing condition.
And it’s not just for “official saints” or saints from centuries ago. I saw Blessed John XXIIIrd’s body on my last trip to the Vatican. It was exhumed and exposed in a clear coffin in the middle of St. Peter’s Basilica…incorrupt and looking great after over 40 years in the tomb. That was cool.
9. Where can I read more about the saints?
There are tons of great websites online, but be careful, some of them are more accurate than others.
Here are two I’ve found to be quick to navigate and quite accurate, from Catholic forum and Catholic.org.
Also, Fr. Butler’s Lives of the Saints is generally considered the finest single compilation on the saints every put together. There’s probably a volume at your parish…maybe even in your home, if your parents went to parochial school. ?
10. Why should saints matter to me today, in the 21st century?
Many times, Catholics (young and old) will question why the saints are important or how they are relevant in modern times. While technology and times change, life is a constant, as are temptation, sin, grace and holiness.
As the song says, “the saints are just the sinners who fell down…and got up.
We can always learn from the saints. It is essential that we never lose our sense of discipleship (literally, “student-ship”). We must keep learning from our past, ours and our familys’. The saints are our older brothers and sisters in the faith.
BONUS answer: Is it true that some saints have their “saint title” taken away?
Once again, the holy, hairy one – Fr. J. – answered this one not too long ago, have a look.
It’s not weird to respect saints, to talk about them, study them, honor them or invite them to pray with and for you.
What is weird is claiming to be a Christian and not desire holiness and intimacy with Christ to such an intense level, that you would stop at nothing to live the life of a saint, yourself.
Live the life of a saint this and every day and someday you’ll be one. You might even have a statue in your honor…not because you want it, but because your life deserves it.
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