The Nature and Role of Saints in the Roman Catholic Church

A person whose profound holiness is formally recognized after death by a Christian church, and who is declared worthy of everlasting praise. A very good and kind person. The word saint has different connotations for people, depending on ones religious affiliation (or lack thereof). An atheist might refer to a person who is very nice as ‘saintly,’ whereas a member of the Orthodox Catholic Church would use that term for a person popularly venerated as a saint, though not requiring official acceptance by the Pope. Regardless of the official definition, saints have helped shape the Judeo-Christian culture, and even today, they play an important role in the lives of believers. However, we will focus on the slow evolution of saints from an old Jewish tradition to their current, official role in the Roman Catholic Church, as well as their more personal impact on individuals. Through a combination of changes in religious and secular politics, the role of saints has gradually evolved, from an offshoot of the veneration of martyrs to their present role as intercessors on behalf of believers.

Saints in the Jewish Tradition

In the texts of the Haggadah, a book contained in the Torah, the concept of the Lamed-Vav is mentioned. This was a sort of early version of the saints for the traditional Jewish. This tradition honoured the simple, humble righteousness of 36 believers in each generation, who by their everyday acts saved the world from the destructive wrath of God, often without realizing that they were one of the "Just Ones." Although these 36 Just Men could not really be venerated by the populace, in the seventh century, a rock shaped like a teardrop was venerated by the Andalusian Jews, who believed that the rock was the soul, petrified by suffering, of an 'unknown' Lamed-Vovnik. Today, within the Hasidic sect of Judaism, the leader is considered to be a ‘living saint’ who acts as a spiritual intermediary for the community, whilst the mainstream Jewish believers today will sometimes visit the graves of their ancestors to pray, believing that the righteous soul, unfettered by human form, can plea for the living before God.

The Veneration of Martyrs

During the fourth century, the early Christian Church first began to distinguish martyrs as worthy of special recognition:

The church does not believe that the martyr is swallowed up in death. Born to a more worthy life, in heaven the martyrs become intercessors to whom the church appeals.

During this time, Christian believers were heavily persecuted by the Roman government, which elevated the lives of people such as Joan of Arc to that of a popular icon even to the secular world. The official definition of a martyr is someone who sacrifices something of great value and especially life itself for the sake of principle. Martyrs played a vital role in the early church as exemplars, strengthening the faith and confidence of their fellow Christians, which led to the veneration of martyrs in the 4th century. However, the church slowly began to go through a transition:

Toward the end of the great Roman persecutions, this phenomenon of veneration , which had been reserved to martyrs, was extended to those who, even without dying for the faith, had nonetheless defended it and suffered for it, confessors of the faith (confessores fidei). Within a short time, this same veneration was extended to those who had been outstanding for their exemplary Christian life...

The Shifting Role of Saints

As individuals throughout Europe were recognized by the people as ‘saints,’ statues were built, their hagiographies were written, and their graves slowly became the destination of the faithful. However, just as the Roman Catholic Church began to develop a process of determining the official role and nature of the saints, a controversial phenomenon arose known as the ‘cult of relics’ in the ninth century. Believers would venerate the belongings and physical remains of a saint, in the hopes that their prayers and petitions to God would be answered. Even the smallest part of a saint’s body was believed to hold the same miraculous powers as the complete body, and objects such as prayer books, cloaks, and utensils used by the saint were found to be effective. However, this made corruption and dishonesty too great of a temptation for both the churches and individual peddlers who sold cheap souvenirs to the pilgrims flocking to see relics. Soon, reproductions were being made, and original relics were being stolen as well, though all in the name of God, supposedly with His blessings:

In 860 the body of Saint Foy was stolen by a monk of Conques from Agen. The account of this theft says that it was carried out for the sake of the health of people in the area of the monastery and for the deliverance of many.

Primarily in reaction to this ‘cult of relics,’ Martin Luther condemned the veneration of saints as idolatrous in his Reformation of the Catholic Church in the 16th century. He also denied the intercessory efficacy of the saints, which restricted their veneration to the Catholic Church. Of course, Luther missed the point of saints, which is not to distance the believer from God, or to make Him seem disinterested in the lives of mere mortals. A common misperception (especially amongst Protestant Christians) concerning the reverence of saints is that believers pray to the saints instead of praying to God, and that it is really a remnant of paganism:

During the Reformation statues of saints were destroyed, their names were eliminated from the calendar, and this ‘idolatrous cult’ was renounced. The Counter-Reformation preserved veneration of the saints with the argument that a person is entitled to intercession by them in his or her relationship with God and is able to attain holiness by following their example.
The Reformation did cause the church to re-examine their stance on the role of saints, and to try to dispel the misconceptions surrounding the veneration of saints, as they tried to enforce their official process of canonization.

The Canonization Process

By introducing a formal canonization process in the fifteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church was able to create boundaries for eager dioceses, and a standard was created to not only clarify things for the church, but also in order to discourage devotees from trying to sanctify persons whose claims were often based on mythology, or even other religions. In 1983, Pope John Paul II reformed the process, and to this day the Catholic Church follows this formula in determining the sainthood of a particular individual. The first requirement is that the candidate must have been deceased for at least 50 years before they can be considered for sainthood. This shows the ‘staying power’ of the saint, in that if he or she is forgotten within this time limit, then they were probably just nice people. Then, two specific characteristics must be established through the testimony of credible witnesses- eminent virtues (or virtues to a ‘heroic degree’), and the performance of at least two authentic miracles. Once these two qualifications are satisfied, the pope assigns the cause to a committee of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and this introduction into the official process is called Beatification. If the candidate passes through this stage, they can be called ‘venerable’ and the pope proclaims a decree of beatification. It is here that many candidates are "weeded out" and remain only venerable (an honorable title nonetheless) while a small number then progress on to canonization. When the Church finally does recognize someone as a saint, it means that the pope publicly proclaims the sanctity of a deceased person, whom he thereupon proposes for the veneration of the universal church.

Much of what determines a person’s sainthood is in the life they led while on earth. Several qualities expected to be apparent in the lives of the saints besides the miracles and visions we often associate them with include asceticism, contemplation, and good works. On the surface these might seem rather simple, as it is not uncommon for Christians to fast on certain occasions, perform acts of goodwill, and to engage in prayer and meditation. Over time, different ideas surfaced as to how a saint was to be distinguished from an ordinary layperson.

The medieval definition of sainthood was not humanly oriented but looked to God. His grace, it was said, elected a person to sainthood, and that election began before birth and was manifested by what God effected through that person. Of course the saint also distinguished himself or herself by exercising virtue, perhaps even in heroic ways.

Saints take these qualities that are not particularly extraordinary in moderation, and practice them to the fullest extent possible. For example, many renounce sufficient diets on a daily basis, as well as sleep, all money and possessions, and any sexual relationship, which are all things that most in the developed countries of the world consider to be basic human rights. The motivation for all of this seemingly unnecessary suffering is to please God, thereby securing a place in heaven, as well as gaining a higher position in the afterlife:

So that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints.
It is then after death that people invocate these persons in prayer, and if miracles occur due to these prayers or contact with the body or personal belongings of the person, then sainthood becomes a possibility.

The Official Role of Saints in the Roman Catholic Church

At the Council of Trent in December of 1563, leaders in the Catholic Church discussed the merits/benefits of invocating and venerating the saints, and they came up with a decree which stated that According to the teachings of the church the saints reign together with Christ and offer their prayers to God on behalf of humankind. Therefore it is good and profitable to plead with them in order to receive God’s favors through Jesus Christ. This statement helps encapsulate what role the saints played in the lives of believers centuries ago, as well as today- intercessors on the behalf of those who pray to them.

The Book of Christian Martyrs
The Encyclopedia of Religions vol 13
Christendom and Christianity in the Middle Ages

Saint (?), n. [F., fr. L. santcus sacred, properly p.p. of sancire to render sacred by a religious act, to appoint as sacred; akin to sacer sacred. Cf. Sacred, Sanctity, Sanctum, Sanctus.]


A person sanctified; a holy or godly person; one eminent for piety and virtue; any true Christian, as being redeemed and consecrated to God.

Them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints. 1 Cor. i. 2.


One of the blessed in heaven.

Then shall thy saints, unmixed, and from the impure Far separate, circling thy holy mount, Unfeigned hallelujahs to thee sing. Milton.

3. Eccl.

One canonized by the church.

[Abbrev. St.]


© Webster 1913.

Saint (?), v. t. [imp. & p. p. Sainted; p. pr. & vb. n. Sainting.]

To make a saint of; to enroll among the saints by an offical act, as of the pope; to canonize; to give the title or reputation of a saint to (some one).

A large hospital, erected by a shoemaker who has been beatified, though never sainted. Addison.

To saint it, to act as a saint, or with a show of piety.

Whether the charmer sinner it or saint it. Shak.


© Webster 1913.

Saint, v. i.

To act or live as a saint.




© Webster 1913.

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