The Saints according to the Catholic Church

The text below was written in March 2000 for a presentation and debate during a meeting of a Bible study group in one of the Baptist churches in Western Australia. Its only reason was to present to the Protestants present a Catholic view of sainthood.

We too, brethren, must follow such examples as these. For it is written,“Cling to the saints, for those who cling to them will be sanctified”

St. Clement (pope A.D. 88-97) in: “Letter of Clement to the Corinthians” (A.D.96)

He who longs to be saved looks not to the external man, but to him who dwells in him and speaks in him

St. Barnabas (?) in: “Letter of Barnabas”, First century (?)

ince the beginning of the early Christianity the idea of sainthood had fascinated the believers. I will try to show where that idea came from and how it came about that particular individuals have been selected (“set apart to God”, which is the exact meaning of “holy” or “saint”) and revered throughout the Christian era. Some – like the Jehovah Witnesses – would argue that the veneration of the saints is wrong as souls die (1). But do they really?  Let me ask you then a very basic biblical question: Who, when and to whom expressed himself in the following way: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” ? The answer is of course very easy : Jesus on the cross to one of the two criminals crucified. And it does not sound very much like a funeral notice, does it? (see: Lk 23; 43).

Let us have a closer look at what the Scripture says. In the Book of Revelation we find the following description:

“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar
the souls of those who had been slain because of
the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.
They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign
Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants
of  the earth and avenge our blood?”  Then each of
them was given a white robe, and they were told to
wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow-
servants and brothers who were to be killed as they
had been was completed.”
(Rev. 6;9-11)

One has to admit that as for the “dead” they are quite fit: they can call in a loud voice  and communicate directly with God! (Here we can see by the way that all  conditions necessary for intercession are met!). And the first letter by Peter gives us the following account:

“For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the
unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death
in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom
also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who
disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the
days of Noah while the ark was being built.
(1 Pet. 3; 18-20)

Well, well, well! Quite foolish of Him to preach to those who are dead, is it not? In the three accounts of the Transfiguration (Matt. 17; 1-3, Mk 9; 2-4 and Lk 9; 28-31) we see Jesus with Moses and Elijah, of whom the first was dead for some thirteen centuries and the second for about 900 years. As there was no resurrection in the meantime, who were those two men if not souls? And all three accounts (apparently basing on an earlier writing (2), unless Matthew and Luke took the account from Mark) show us Moses and Elijah talking to Christ.


ho are the saints? In the Old Testament (and here it is the time and place to remind everyone that we have it in our canon as well !) the term ‘saint’ has the meaning of the godly people. And this is the only meaning there!

What about the New Testament? Despite everything one could say, the meaning is exactly the same (3). No context whatsoever tells us that the term applies to absolutely everybody in any church. What should tell us that all believers are saints? Is it for verses like this one: “…we have heard of the love you have for all the saints” ?(Col. 1;4, also in Eph. 1;15). What then should we say about the following ones: “Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the saints” (Ps. 149;1) and “Let the saints rejoice in this honour and sing for joy in their beds” (Ps. 149;5)? In the “New Jerusalem Bible” those quotations read in the following way: “Sing a new song to Yahweh; his praise in the assembly of the faithful” and “The faithful exult in glory, shout for joy as they worship him”. Does this indicate, that The Old Testament calls all the believers “saints” and that “no special class of people holier than others” is found in “such passages” ?

What about this: “May your priests, O Lord God, be clothed with salvation, may your saints rejoice in your goodness” ?(2Chr. 6;41) [NJB version: “…let your faithful rejoice in what is good”].

We could extend the list of “such passages” at will. And no-one dares to deny the fact that  “In the Old Testament, the word describes godly Israelites and others” (4) Why? The answer is simple: Jews believed that saints are both in Heaven and on earth. Since they regarded sainthood as a quality shared by the community, they refrained from calling any person a “saint”. For it was the community that was holy, not particular persons.

We find the term (in NT) in the epistles, in the Book of Acts and in the Book of Revelation. In the latter the term appears altogether 9 times either in the Old Testament’s meaning or applied directly to martyrs. St. John is not using this term in any of his 3 letters. Jude uses it once only (verse 3) but here too we cannot establish that the term is applied to all Church members without exception. Peter is not using the term in any of his two letters. James is also not.  We do not find it in the epistle to Hebrews or in 1 & 2 Timothy and in the letter to Titus. There is no mention of it in 1 & 2 Thessalonians or in Galatians. The Book of Acts mentions  the term 3 times of which twice in the reference to martyrs (9;13 & 26;10) and only once in the context of a community (9;32). We find it however and namely and namely frequently applied to communities in the following letters: Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. These have however one author: Paul of Tarsus i.e. St. Paul. The letter to Ephesians might be one exception here as most scholars do not believe in Paul’s authorship and attribute this particular epistle to Paul’s disciples (5). As a very temperamental person Paul tends to use big and beautiful words and  expressions.  He likes addressing people in a way that shows his love and concern . He is calling them “the holy and faithful brothers” (Colossians 1;2), “God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved” (Col. 3;12) or “saints” . But he also uses different “titles” when referring to himself:  from  “servant of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1;1) through “father through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4;15) up to “Christ’s ambassador” (2 Cor. 5;20). He is also calling himself “an apostle”  or “called to be an apostle”. And this despite the fact, that he did not consider himself entitled to it:

“For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle because I persecuted the Church of God” (1 Cor. 15;9)

In the next verse he says :

“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.”

Once however given that grace he felt compelled to prove himself worthy of it:

“No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I but the grace of God that was with me.”

The grace demanded hard work and sufferings from him, of which he gives an account  in 2 Cor. 11;16-33, where he states among others:

“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely and been
exposed to death again and again”
(verse 23)

The Grace then had worked ! And it had to work, for without work it would not have produced its effects. It was not faith alone then and God’s selection only that made an apostle of Paul. It was his persistence and his work that earned him the recognition of an apostle in the entire Christian tradition despite the fact that he was not an apostle from the beginning.

Was it not for Paul, then most probably hardly anyone would have any doubts today as to what the term “saint” means and to whom it applies. Therefore it would also be correctly and unequivocally understood in NT writings other than Paul’s, where some have doubts. Let us take this example:

“…I felt I had to write and urge you to contend
for the faith that was once for all entrusted to
the saints”
(Jude 3)

Today, after having read Paul’s epistles and being influenced by them, one could even argue that Jude speaks about all believers as ‘saints’. But does he really? Let us look at this verse carefully: he wants his addressees to contend  for the faith and this itself requires someone to possess something more than just faith. One has to do something specific and if we place this particular passage in its historical background, which is not Australia A.D. 2000 but in the first century when active and cruel persecutions were either under way or were at least expected at any time, then we will be able to appreciate and understand that to contend for faith meant sainthood as it is understood in the Catholic Church (also because Jude is urging the believers to fight heresies). Someone who is just a believer will not contend for anything, particularly if it involves any risk.

But even if Paul was eager to apply the term “saints” quite liberally to communities of believers and even goes as far as to call them “washed…sanctified…justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6;11), he is himself not taking his words literally, for he is constantly reminding them of their duties, of the necessity of godly lives, he is warning them against splits, false prophets or immorality. Passages to this effect could be quoted here endlessly. And how many times he is simply chastising his flock! Even for their behaviour during their meetings as a church:

“When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper
you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without
waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another
gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in?
Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate
those who have nothing? What shall I say to you?
Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!”
(1 Cor.11;20-22)

Do we really need more quotations like this one to be finally convinced that the one who is holy does no longer need to be admonished, and if he is, then apparently he is not holy as yet.

How then to understand that constant reference by Paul to believers as “saints”? I would say that simply as a respectful way of addressing a community of fellow-Christians. The more so, that Paul never calls himself a saint. In fact he does not even consider himself saved as yet, for as he points out:

“Now it is required that those who have been given
a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am
judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do
not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but
that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord
who judges me”
(1 Cor. 4;2-4)

He does not stop on this however: he reminds us that “God will give to each person according to what he has done” and that the eternal life belongs to those who seek it “by persistence in doing good” (Romans 2;6-7). Yes indeed there is a lot to be done, for as also St. Peter observes, we have to “grow up in our salvation” (1 Pt. 2;2)(6). He also says:

“But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy
in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because
I am holy”
(1 Pt. 1; 15-16)

And James gives everyone a tough lesson of Christianity in a pretty long passage of his letter (2;14-26). This is the only moment in the New Testament where “faith” comes together with “alone” when it says “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (verse 24). Twice it is stated that faith without deeds is dead (verses 17 & 26) and the whole passage culminates in the famous exclamation “You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?” (verse 20).

God can give us His grace, he calls us all to sainthood, but it is only in our hands what we actually do with this grace, precisely as St. Paul says that those who were given trust have to prove themselves! And it is precisely how the biblical accounts were understood. The gospels leave little doubt that their moral standards are not of this world and that the faithful – the saints – have to meet them. Therefore those are the saints who live up to these standards. Sainthood is then a process of development in the Spirit.

And it is not even quite certain that everyone really receives the Holy Spirit when baptized, as the Book of Acts tells us in 8; 14-17 and 10; 44-48. St. Benedict (c. A.D. 480-547) once stated categorically that one should “not wish to be called holy before one is holy; but first to be holy, that one may more truly be called so”. Sanctity is earned by faith, love and deeds. Here I would like to quote Dr Mitchell Pacwa, a Jesuit priest, who summed it up by saying that “we are saved by grace through faith which works by love”. (7). And so it is with sainthood. One should however distinguish between salvation and sanctification for this is where many misconceptions take place: in lack of such distinction. The criminal whom Jesus promised paradise (as quoted before from Lk 23;43) was saved but no-one considers him a saint! (and we have no biblical evidence whatsoever that Jesus did). Similarly when Jesus speaks about salvation, some people (i.e. Protestants) are more than willing to interpret it as a sort of “nomination” to sainthood. Let us quote some examples as recorded in the gospels:

“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16;16)

“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (Jn 5;24)

“Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”(Jn 11;25-26)

Again, this is about salvation, not necessarily about sainthood. But let us follow this motif for a moment. What does Christ tell us here about salvation? Allow me two biblical questions:

1)    Does He tell us that in order to obtain salvation we must have faith?

To this question the answer is undoubtedly an emphatic Yes!

2)    Does He tell us here or anywhere else that faith is the only thing we need for our salvation?

Here the answer is No!

If anyone truly believes that “Jesus tells him” (or her) that he (or she) is saved or is going to be saved (let alone sanctified!) then the question one can ask this person is what he (or she) thinks – in this context – about the Final Judgment. For it is not a very logical assumption, nor even biblical, that any Judgment is needed if we are already guaranteed salvation! And certainly we cannot prove (for there is no evidence in the Scripture at all) that only the unbelievers are going to be judged. A whole abundance of verses could be produced however to prove that just the opposite is the case.

“Why do you call me, “Lord, Lord” and do not do
what I say? I will show you what he is like who
comes to me and hears my words and puts them
into practice.”
(Lk 6; 46-47)

Then the story of Wise and Foolish builders follows.  And after the parable of the Good Samaritan he tells the expert in the law “Go and do likewise” (Lk 10; 37).  He teaches his disciples to love their enemies, for “then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High” (Lk 6;35). He demonstrates the necessity of deeds to the rich young man (8), who apparently was a believer and was observing the law. And yet he left after he heard what was expected from him. For some apparently to get to the Kingdom of Heaven is more difficult than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle. This disturbed the Apostles who now wanted some more explanation. “Who then can be saved?”, they were pressing. Christ answered enigmatically “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mt 19;26). He did not say it is guaranteed but only possible. The cost of being a disciple is enormous as He is telling us clearly in Lk 14; 25-35 in a passage culminating in His famous statement “any of you who does not give up everything he has, cannot be my disciple”. And as if He wanted this message to be absolutely clear to everyone, He says “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”. So you better do not assume that you are already saved or “saints”, for this is definitely not what He is telling you! Instead He reminds everyone that unless their righteousness is greater than that of  Pharisees and teachers (of the law), they will “certainly not enter the kingdom of heavens” (Mt 5;20) and also “…that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Mt 12; 36-37). Does not sound like “automatic” sainthood for everyone who condescends to believe and join the Church, does it? Especially if Christ emphasizes (in Mt 16;24) “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”. Luke on his part (9;23) even quotes Him saying “…take up his cross daily and follow me”.

I hope that by now everyone has already the idea what a true (and not only a formal) sainthood is, the more so that the above accounts come from Christ himself. We also know that God is the only one to sanctify anyone. About sanctification Jesus is speaking only once, as recorded in the Gospels. An account of this we can find in the Chapter 17 of St. John’s gospel. It is Christ’s last prayer.  He is praying here for The Father’s protection for His disciples (i.e. The Twelve – see verses 11 & 12) and for their sanctification:

“Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.
As you sent me into the world, I have sent them
into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that
they too may be truly sanctified”
(Jn 17; 17-19)

This is by the way a very interesting moment in the New Testament. Christ was teaching for about 3-4 years. The apostles were with him all that time or at least for the most of it. It is just moments before His arrest and we see that the twelve were still not sanctified by then. Next He is praying for all believers:

“…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are
in me and I am in you”
(verse  22)

“May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you loved me” (verse 23)

And so on in the same fashion. Although the prayer for all believers is not a particularly short one (verses 20-26), there is no mention whatsoever there, that any of them is sanctified already, nor even that Christ is praying for their sanctification.

By sticking doggedly to Paul and taking him literally (without even an effort to analyze his personality, style and background) – and above all by doing it against Christ’s better knowledge and his own words, one would inevitably expose himself  to suspicion of idolatry. What to say if someone is apparently valuing Paul’s addresses higher than God’s own words? One would probably have to ask those questions which Paul himself asked:

“Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?(1 Cor. 1;13)



e have shown already that all necessary prerequisites for intercession are met and it is the Scripture that proves it. It can be the Holy Spirit that intercedes, as we  find out in Romans 8; 26-27):

“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness.
We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit
himself  intercedes for us with groans that words cannot
express. And he who searches our hearts knows the
mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the
saints in accordance with God’s will.

But not necessarily it must be the Holy Spirit to take our prayers to God:

“Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at  the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with
the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the
throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the
prayers of the saints, went up before God from the
angel’s hand.
(Rev. 8; 3-4)

Now one would really have to stand on his head and perform some mental acrobatics  to “prove” that this cannot be understood as an intercession! And what about this:

“He came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four
living creatures and the twenty four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden
bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
(Rev. 5; 7-8)

The Book of Revelation shows us in this way that not necessarily prayers go directly from the faithful to God, but that there are “intermediaries” who take the prayers of the faithful and present them to Him.

Still a better account of intercession is presented in 2 Maccabees, where we see that long before Christ the Jews believed that those who died and were righteous, could pray for them:

“Now the vision was in this manner: Onias who had been
a priest, a good and virtuous man, modest in his looks,
gentle in his manners and graceful in his speech, and who
from a child was exercised in virtues, holding up his hands,
prayed for all the people of the Jews.
(2 Macc. 15;12)

The first and second book of Maccabees are included in the Catholic scriptural  canon. The Protestants do not accept their canonicity, even if they were originally accepted by the early Church, like the other 5 deuterocanonical books (9). Prayers from the Saints are but the only thing we want from them and we ask for their intercession like in the following prayer:

“I confess to Almighty God and to you, brothers and sisters that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word and deed (…) (…) Therefore I beseech the blessed Mary ever Virgin,
all the Angels and Saints and you brothers and sisters
to pray to the Lord, our God, for me.”


he “biblically approved” tendency to turn to the saints for their intercession was most certainly strengthened by the unusual gifts possessed by some of them. The mystics were usually those believed to have attained a special degree of intimacy with the supernatural. Let us then have a brief look at some of these gifts:

The stigmata are Christ’s wounds, imprinted on the bodies of those who suffer the Passion and Crucifixion. There have been 65 cases of authentic stigmata in the Catholic Church since the time of St Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). Altogether since that time 325 cases were reported (10). To stigmata there is another phenomenon related, namely a special sweet scent emanating from wounds. This scent was often referred to as aroma of sanctity or the gift of perfume. Many people have claimed to smell this perfume of a saint after praying for his or her intercession.

Luminous effluvia (luminosity) in the form of light be it around the head of the person or sometimes even around the whole body. Examples of luminous effluvia were noted in cases of Saints like Alphonsus Liguori, Peter Eymard (in a chapel and during adorations at the altar), Francis of Possades (during ecstasies and levitations), Therese of Lisieux (during First Communion), Benedict Joseph Labre and Catherine of Siena (both also seen transfigured).

Incorruptibility of bodies after death, whereby either the whole body is preserved intact or almost intact or a part of it. Examples are: Catherine Laboure (1806-1876) whose body was well preserved still in 1933; Theresa of Avila (1515-82)-heart found incorrupt in 1872; Joan of Arc-heart unburnt and still bleeding after the execution at the stake in Rouen in 1431 (repeated efforts to burn it by throwing sulphur, oil and coals were in vain)(11); Rita of Cascia (1381-1457) body still preserved; the same is the case of Clare de Montefalco (d. 1308); Catherine of Siena(1347-80) head and finger incorrupt and still preserved in basilica at Siena. Altogether there have been well over 100 cases of incorruptibility since A.D. 1000.

Bilocation i.e. the physical appearance of a person in two different places at the same time. Among well documented cases of bilocation we can mention Padre Pio of Pietrelcina (1887-1968), the famous stigmatist (12); Anthony of Padua (1195-1231); John Bosco(1815-88); Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787).

Levitations i.e. a state in which the person is physically lifted off the ground and so suspended in the air in moments of ecstasy. Among those who have been seen in that state were: Theresa of Avila (1515-82), John of the Cross (1542-91), Francis of Assisi, Alphonsus Liguori, John Bosco. The most famous case is the one of St Joseph of Cupertino (1603-63). Over seventy occasions are recorded of his levitations. His daily life was full of such phenomena, that that for 35 years he was not allowed to celebrate any public functions (13).

"Jeanne d'Arc" bringing an infant back to life in Lagny

Inedia, which is the ability not to eat anything except for the Eucharist. Many Saints had this experience for many years. Sometimes they were also able to abstain from drinking any fluids, however this phenomenon is much rarer. The claim is that the saints concerned needed only the Bread of Life that Is able to nourish and sustain the body. The most recent case, Theresa Neumann from Konnersreuth in Bavaria (Germany) (1898-1962) was reportedly not eating anything from 1926 until her death in 1962. She was also not drinking any fluids since 1927. Other examples are: Catherine of Siena (long periods of total abstinence),Rita of Cascia (several months-long fasts per year), Angela of Foligno (no nourishment except for the Eucharist for twelve years), Nicholas of Flue (1417-87; no food or drink for 20 years).

Little or no sleep. This phenomenon amazes doctors even more than the one of inedia. It has been observed in dozens of cases, such as these of Catherine of Siena (only occasional sleep), St Colette (1381-1447; only occasional sleep, Christina the Astonishing (1150-1224; very little sleep, Peter of Alcantara (1499-1562; one hour sleep per week), Catherine dei Ricci (1522-90; one hour per week).

Resurrections or rather raising the dead. Throughout the Christian era over 400 such cases were reported and authenticated. St Vincent Ferrer (1350-1419) claimed to have raised 28 people from the dead. Other examples include: Catherine of Siena, John Bosco, Theresa of Avila, Francis Xavier (1506-52), Joan of Arc, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153).

Apparitions and voices. Apparitions are visions, often called corporeal or substantialvisions because of their physical, bodily appearance. The voices can be of internal character (locutions) or external (auditions). St. Gemma Galgani (1878-1903) had apparitions and talks during the last few years of her life. Among other saints to receive them were Catherine of Siena, Francis of Assisi, Gertrude the Great (1256-1302), Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510), Rose of Lima (1586-1617), Theresa of Avila or Catherine Laboure (1806-76). A definite “record maker” in this “category” was however St. Joan of Arc. Between 1424 and 1431 she received altogether between 500 and 750 of voices and apparitions (14).



St Sebaldus' coffin in the Sebalduskirche in Nuremberg

he cult of the saints in the Christian tradition was gradually developing from  the very beginnings of this religious movement and for the next fifteen centuries nobody (not even those who were later to become Protestants) ever questioned it. The word “cult” has became a pejorative in the contemporary Western language and this is why many people associate it with the irrational and with idolatry. But if we had to follow this understanding, then we would have to acknowledge the fact that Christianity itself is “idolatrous” and namely from the very beginning given the cult or worship of the crucified Jesus. Had it not been for him and his martyrdom, it is hardly imaginable that the cult of saints would have ever come to existence.

The term “saints” (“hagioi) as known from the New Testament was used to all baptized believers only nominally i.e. in that very way in which Paul was using it in his epistles (and in this sense it is also used in today’s Catholic Church). Since most of the early Christians were Jews, they regarded holiness as a quality shared by the community, and not as a quality of an individual, i.e. it was not every single believer to be regarded a saint, but a community (15). This would explain why St. Paul (himself a Jew) was never addressing anyone directly e.g. “dear saints”. Generally the saints in the biblical descriptions are rather on a higher level of sanctity than he who describes them. Christianity inherited basically the Jewish meaning of the term as of people of exceptional holiness. The only change was the selection of particular individuals to whom to apply this term, given their virtues (16).

Already the first generation of Christians singled certain individuals out for special reverence, as the case of St. Stephen demonstrates in the Bible. Stephen was the first martyr of Christianity. His story we can find in the Book of Acts (chapters 6 & 7). This is the only account of his life and martyrdom and simultaneously the first example of Christian hagiography. Let us pay attention how it is constructed. The narrative was written in such a form as to show parallels between Stephen and Christ.

Stephen does great wonders (6;8), is a great orator (7;2-53), incites hostility of the members of the Synagogue (6;9-10), who plot against him and arrest him (6;12). They produce false witnesses who testify against him (6;13). Then they drag him out of the city and stone him (7;58). Stephen on his part forgives them and prays to God to forgive them too (7;60). The Christian community was able then to recognize a saint in Stephen by analogy with Christ. Stephen’s story is in fact the story of Jesus repeated by a fully human being. Thus Stephen became a witness of Christ. The Greek word “martys” means “witness”. This is also why the cult of martyrs and martyrdom developed very quickly already in the first century. And it was already at that time (i.e. in the first century) that the term “saint” or “blessed” was reserved exclusively for martyrs. One just needs to read writings of the Apostolic Fathers (known as Fathers of the Church), disciples of the apostles, to see that they almost never used such terms when referring to all believers (unless of course they were simply following the biblical meaning of the term). For the early Christians sainthood was an experience.

In the year 96 A.C. St. Clement, at that time the bishop of Rome (the fourth pope according to our tradition) wrote a letter to Corinthians. This is the so called first letter by Clement. Referring to the righteous mentioned in the Scripture, he pointed out:

“We too, brethren, must follow such examples as these.
For it is written, “Cling to the saints, for those who
cling to them will be sanctified”
[source unknown]
And again, in another place it says,“With the innocent you will be innocent
and with the chosen you will be chosen
and with the perverse man you will deal perversely
[Ps. 18;26-27].
Let us then imitate the innocent
and righteous, for such are the chosen of God.

It is worthy to note that this letter was often quoted by Christian writes during the first 3 centuries, and in Egypt and Syria it was included in some lists of the New Testament books (18). It is in this letter that we find a reference to “blessed Paul the Apostle” (47;1) and “blessed Judith” (55;4). St. Ignatius in his letter to Philadelphians refers to apostles and prophets saying “worthy of love and admiration, they are saints” (5;1).

St. Polycarp, disciple of the Apostle John, in his letter to Philippians (1 half of the II century) refers to “blessed and glorious Paul” (3;2) as well as to “blessed Ignatius, Zosimus and Rufus”(9;1) all of whom were martyrs.

What the saints had to say about themselves can be seen on the example of St. Ignatius, the second bishop of Antioch, who in A.D. 107 on his way to martyrdom in Rome, being escorted by Roman soldiers, was sending letters to the churches in Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia and Smyrna as well as to bishop Polycarp of Smyrna (19). And that St. Ignatius, disciple of the Apostle John, while on his way to death was still only hoping that he would be judged by God “worthy to the end” (in his letter to Romans 1;1). He asked the Romans:

“Only pray that I may have power, both within and without, so that I may not only be called Christian
but be found to be one. For if I am found to be one,
I can also be called one, and then can be faithful
when I disappear from the world”

He also – like St. Paul – never called himself a “saint” despite all his devotion to God. He did not go further than to call himself a “disciple”:

“I become more of a disciple because of their (i.e. soldiers – MM) mistreatment of me, but not by this am I justified (5;1)

Indulge me; I know what is to my advantage; now I am beginning to be a disciple”(5;3)

St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, the one whom I quoted already and who met Ignatius on his way to martyrdom, was himself martyred about 50 years later (A.D.155) in Smyrna, where he was burnt alive. He also was not calling himself a “saint”, but simply “a Christian”. To proconsul Statius Quadratus who was judging him, he said:

“If you vainly expect that I will swear by Ceasar’s Genius as you suggest, and pretend to be ignorant who I am,
listen to what I say openly: I am a Christian. If you want
to learn the teaching of Christianity, name the day and
hear about it

After his death his church in Smyrna wrote a letter “The Martyrdom of Polycarp” to the church in Philomelium. Five times this letter calls the martyr “blessed” (1;1, 19;1, 21;1, App.II 22;1, App.IIIB 22;3), twice “holy” (App.IV;1 & 5) and once “saint” (App.IV;2)(21), stating also that “Of the elect was he indeed one,this most wonderful Polycarp – a man who in our times showed himself an apostolic and prophetic teacher and bishop of the catholic church in Smyrna” (16;2). Such letters show by the way the evolution in the Christian understanding of sainthood: saints are mentioned by their names.

The road to sainthood is the one of total submission to the will of God, whatever it takes. And this is also how it was understood by the saints. Let them speak for themselves:

“I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said” (St. Mary, Mother of Jesus, in: Lk 1;38)

“If necessary I will suffer for the faith that I hold” (St. Crispina, martyr, d. A.D. 437)

“I am ready to shed my blood in witness of my belief in heaven”(St. Therese of Lisieux, 1873-97)

“I am ready to give myself for my people” (St. Nicasius, martyr, III century)

“I worship only one God and to Him I am ready to offer a sacrifice of praise”(St. Saturninus, martyr, III century)

“I would rather die than disown what I have done by Our Lord’s Command” (St. Joan of Arc, 1431)

One of the earliest Christian beliefs was the one of the Communion of Saints. Because martyrs became perfect witnesses of God, they were believed to have attained the everlasting life. But in their glory the Saints were not forgetting those living on earth. We know from the Scripture, as mentioned before, that all requirements for intercession were met. As “friends of God” the Saints could – through their intercession – help their fellow-Christians on earth. This is why already during the first three centuries Christianity developed not only the cult of Saints but also the idea of praying for their intercession.

As it was the popular acclaim, a controversy developed over the proper way of reverence, in other words there was fear that their cult would replace the worship of God. One has to keep in mind that at that time (I – IV century) Christianity  was just one of many religions, most of which were polytheistic. The Gentiles coming from the polytheistic background were quite naturally bringing their old habits into their new religion. So for example Christian families were feasting at tombs of their saints. They were spending nights in shrines to have the saints’ protection. They were burying their dead “ad sanctos” (i.e. close to the saints’ tombs) in order to secure their protection when the Judgment comes. The last example illustrates by the way, that despite everything the worship of God was not removed (if they still feared God’s Judgment) and that the cult even if somewhat excessive, never turned into idolatry (22).
Nevertheless the hierarchy had to observe the cults and its policies showed very early and clearly the Church’s position on this point. The Church in the third and fourth centuries had clearly distinguished between latria (i.e. worship owed to God alone) and doulia (reverence owed to saints). The earliest preserved refutal of the charge of idolatry was recorded in the letter of the church of Smyrna on Polycarp’s Martyrdom (A.D. 155). The church reported that someone wanted to prevent the authorities to return Polycarp’s body after execution:

“So he incited Nicetes, the father of Herod (23) and brother of Alce,
to beg the magistrate not to give up his body, “Lest”, he said
“they abandon the Crucified and begin to worship this man”.
And this they said at the instigation and urging of the Jews
who were also watching when we were about to take him from
the fire; they did not know that we shall never find it possible
either to abandon Christ who suffered for the salvation of those
saved in all the world, the blameless for the sinners, or to
worship any other. For him we worship as the Son of God; but
the martyrs we love as disciples and imitators of the Lord,
as they deserve because of their incomparable loyalty to their
own King and Teacher. May it also be granted us to become their
partners and fellow disciples.”

Controversy arose over relics whether they should be venerated or not. The first option prevailed, among others for pedagogical reasons. The Council of Carthage in 401 decided that bishops should destroy all altars set up as memorials to martyrs and new shrines could be built only if contained relics. In 797 the Council of Nicaea issued a decree that every church altar was to contain “altar stone” with the relics of a saint. A custom had developed of building churches over tombs of saints, the best known example being St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.


ll such measures constituted merely an attempt to bring some order to the process that occurred through a spontaneous acclamation of the faithful rather than to take a firm control over it. Initially there was no canonization in the Church. Up until A.D. 300 saints were revered by the faithful themselves, often even without any explicit approval from their local bishops. Over the centuries different communities of Christians were compiling numerous lists of their saints and martyrs. Stories of “pope made Saints” one can easily put among fairy-tales. The most comprehensive work on the saints, the “Bibliotheca Sanctuorum”, running to 18 volumes (as of 1989), lists over 10,000 saints of whom only 400 were canonized by popes.

Canonizations however proved necessary as the numbers of martyrs and pseudo-martyrs were growing. In the era of intensive Roman persecutions many schismatics and heretics were killed for their beliefs as well. Moreover during the fourth century the heretical Donatists were often going as far as to commit suicide or to instigate others to kill them for the sake of becoming martyrs and earning veneration.

The earliest canonization on a level of a diocese (approved by a local bishop) took place in England through a declaration of a diocesan synod in A.D.679. The canonized saint was St. Augustine (archbishop) of Canterbury (died in 604). The synod declared Augustine as “sanctus” (i.e. “saint”).

The first officially recorded papal canonization was the one of the German bishop Ulrich von Augsburg (890-973) by Pope John XV in 993. But another seven centuries were needed to have the process of canonization firmly in the hands of papacy. In the meantime however the role of papacy in canonizations increased progressively.

So for example in 1170 Pope Alexander III upbraided a local Swedish bishop Arnulfus for tolerating a cult to a monk, who was killed in a drunken brawl. Brawling monks were not the sort of examples of holiness, that Church wanted the people to imitate. Alexander III was the first of the great Medieval lawyer-popes.

In the XIV century under the canonical reforms of the papacy in Avignon (France) the canonization procedures took a form of a legal trial between the petitioners represented by an official procurator aided by witnesses and the pope represented by a different official known as “Promoter of the Faith” (popularly known as “Advocatus Diaboli” i.e. “Devil’s Advocate”). This official would be known today simply as “prosecutor”. He was usually aided by 1 or 2 other lawyers. The number of witnesses called by such “court” could vary depending on “case” from 11 up to 371.

Before however the papacy was able to take the full control of canonizations the cult of saints was seriously shaken by the Protestant Reformation. As stated before, the cult of saints was created by public acclaim and as such was developing throughout centuries thus “producing” extensive numbers of those venerated. The Medieval Christianity was – as Kenneth L. Woodward observes – “a culture of saints”. Every town and village had its patron saint and nearly every church had some sort of relics (often false). Trades and guilds were selecting saints for patronage. People started looking for particular saints when in need to be cured of particular diseases etc. No wonder then that the Protestant Reformation scored its greatest success here.

Of all Protestant leaders Martin Luther was the one whose attitude towards saints was the relatively most complex. His decision to become a monk was triggered by a thunderstorm, during which he prayed to St. Anne vowing to join a religious order if he survived. He objected however to great numbers of dubious relics (especially of dubious saints). He argued that a saint has no more grace than any believer since – in his opinion – Christians are justified by faith alone (24). He also protested against all the legends that had been added to stories of saints. He however appreciated those of them, he felt were authentic. He wrote: “Next to Holy Scripture there certainly is no more useful book for Christians then the lives of the saints, especially when unadulterated and authentic” (25).

The Church responded by reaffirming the cult of saints (Council of Trent 1545-63) and by removing many names from overcrowded calendar of saints. In 1588 Pope Sixtus V created the Congregation of Rites with responsibility to prepare papal canonizations. But the final complete control of papacy over canonizations was established during the pontificate of Urban VIII (1623-44). The pope strictly forbade any public veneration unless papal beatification or canonization took place.

Countess Jehanne du Lys, commonly known as "Jeanne d'Arc"

This will be presented here on one example. Leon Cristiani in his book “Sainte Jeanne d’Arc” gives an account of the case of that particular saint. Cristiani explains:

“The Church takes a long time to make such decisions, which are based on prolonged and careful inquiries into the life of the candidate, to ascertain if he or she practiced the Christian virtues to a heroic degree. In addition, God’s own mark of approval is sought. To this end, the promoters of the prospective saint’s cause are asked to vouch for four authentic miracles obtained after the death of the candidate for sainthood, to secure his or her beatification,and two more, obtained after the beatification to proceed to the canonization.” (26)

It was customary for the pope to dispense with one of the miracles necessary for beatification if the saint had founded a religious order. “In Joan’s case, this dispensation was granted because she had saved France. Thus, three miracles sufficed for her beatification”. The first request for the introduction of Joan’s case was initiated in 1869 by Bishop Dupanloup of Orleans i.e. of the city liberated by her in 1429 (27). All French bishops as well as a large number of prelates from other countries supported Dupanloup and the preparatory enquiries began. In 1894 Pope Leo XIII ordered a favorable conclusion to the proceedings.

“The best known and most highly respected historians were convoked. They came and made depositions of what they knew about Joan and what they thought of her, not only from the human or patriotic point of view, but also from the vantage point of Christianity” .(28)

The next step was to establish the three miracles necessary for beatification.

“Among the many favors attributed to Joan, three cures were chosen, deemed to be miraculous after long and rigorous investigation. In 1897, Sister Therese of St. Augustine had been cured of an ulcer in Orleans. Sister Julie Gauthier was cured of a cancerous ulcer at Faverolles, near Evreux. Sister Marie Sagnier of the Congregation of the Holy Family was also miraculously cured at Frages, in the diocese of Arras.
These miracles were accepted as authentic. The minutes of this twofold inquiry were published in two imposing volumes in Rome. The first, dealing with Joan’s virtues, was published in 1901. The second, concerning the miracles was published in 1907.”

On January 6, 1904, Pius X issued the decree as to Joan’s heroic virtue and on December 13, 1908 the decree accepting the miracles. The beatification ceremony took place in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome on 18th April 1909.

“The beatification ceremonies had scarcely been celebrated in all parishes in France when the eloquent and active Bishop Touchet of Orleans began storming heaven for the two miracles needed for Joan’s canonization. (29)These two miracles were obtained and authenticated without too much delay. The canonization would have followed soon afterward except for the World War I, which put a stop to all such activities from 1914 to 1918.”

Leon Cristiani gives a description of one of those two miracles as he was chosen by Bishop Touchet to be an official reporter of it:

“This was the case of a young invalid from Lyons, France, named Therese Bellin. I have given from my personal notes, taken the very day of the miracle, a detailed account of everything that happened. This account was published in the periodical ‘Ecclesia’, in its May, 1953 issue.
The date was August 22, 1909. Bishop Touchet happened to be at Lourdes with a pilgrimage from his diocese. He asked permission to offer the usual invocations during the procession of the Blessed Sacrament this afternoon, and to add just once during the ceremony three invocations to Joan of Arc. His intention was to obtain a miracle to support the cause of her canonization.Therese Bellin lay unconscious among the sick lined up on the esplanade. She remained unconscious when the Blessed Sacrament passed before her. But at the first invocation to Blessed Joan of Arc she opened her eyes; at the second, she sat up on her stretcher; and at the third invocation, she felt she had been cured. I saw her a few moments later(…) I questioned at length the young woman (…) as well as her godmother who had accompanied her. They told me the various stages of her sickness, the names of the physicians who had been treating her, the operations she had had, the remedies that had been used without effect, and finally about the cure. This was carefully checked and rechecked by competent authorities, and the miracle was registered as authentic.”

The canonization of Joan of Arc finally took place on May 9, 1920. The liturgical feast of St. Joan of Arc was set on May 30, the date of her death.(30)

Someone said that Christianity would be unthinkable without sinners and unlivable without saints. And certainly this is a persuasive argument. Christianity would be unthinkable without sinners – for Christ  “has not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk 2;17). And unlivable without saints – for they are those who living up to standards in this world but not of this worldshow us that it is not impossible to follow these standards. To me personally they are proofs themselves that humanity has sense and that a human is really created as the image of God. Their lives were and still can be an inspiration to us.


1. To prove their point they quote Ezekiel 18;4 but only partially. In reality only “the soul who sins is the one who will die” and the next verses of this passage tell us which sort of death it is. It is the spiritual death. In the New Testament we have a similar statement: “But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives” (1Tim. 5;6).

2. Modern scholarship has been able to recover the lost document using the technique of isolation of the “building blocks” accumulated by the Evangelists to create their final products. This document is called “Quelle” which is the German word for “source”. See: John Shelby Spong. Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. HarperCollins N.Y. 1991, p.85-90. An interesting comparison between all different gospels (including the non-canonical ones) is in: “The complete gospels: Annotated Scholars Version” Harper San Francisco 1994

3. E.g. “Nave’s Topical Living Bible” “reveals” that  “…all believers during the present age are saints” and that “No special class of people holier than others is found in such passages” (p.1079)

4. “Nave’s Topical Living Bible”, p. 1079

5. It is believed that it was written in the generation after Paul’s death, possibly as an introduction to a collection of Paul’s authentic letters. See J.S. Sponge. Rescuing the Bible… p.94.

6. “Therefore rid yourselves of all malice and deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave spiritual milk, so that you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good” (verses 1-3)

7. Here quoted from “Surprised by Truth”, p.233.

8. Mt 19;16-24. Parallel story in: Lk 18; 18-30

9. i.e. Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus (Ben Sira) and Baruch.

10. Michael Freze. “The Making of Saints” 1991, p.54

11. Leon Christiani. “Saint Joan of Arc” Boston 1977, p.147

12. he also prophesied, e.g. to a young Polish priest he said in 1947: “Someday you will be pope”. That “someday” came for Karol Wojtyła 31 years later (K.L. Woodward “Making Saints”, p. 157)

13. Butler’s Lives of the Saints. New Concise Edition. 1997, p. 294-295

14. Leon Cristiani. “Saint Joan of Arc”, p.21-36

15. Kenneth L. Woodward. “Making Saints” New York 1991, p.52

16. Protestantism has Catholic roots. So when Protestants definitely broke with the 15-centuries-long tradition of the cult of saints, they left the Church taking with themselves the Christian understanding of sainthood as applied to individuals. As they erroneously assumed that all believers are justified by faith alone (this issue will be mentioned later), they also – as a consequence – applied the term simply to  themselves.

17. quoted from “The Apostolic Fathers” (edited by Jack N. Sparks) N.Y. 1978, p.43

18. op. cit. p. 16

19. these letters by St. Ignatius, which he wrote in order to encourage the churches in their faith, were regarded so highly, that many considered them to be part of the New Testament, bound with the apostolic writings.

20. from the letter by the church in Smyrna about Polycarp’s martyrdom 10;1

21. A XIII-century manuscript (transcription of earlier texts) mentions Irenaeus, Polycarp’s disciple and says: “Now this Irenaeus was in Rome at the time of the martyrdom of bishop Polycarp and taught many there. Many excellent and altogether sound writings are in circulation in which he mentions Polycarp and recalls that he was instructed by him. He masterfully refuted every heresy and handed on the ecclesiastical and catholic rule of faith as he had received it from the saint.” (App.IV;2)

22. those practices by the way were helpful with conversions: former polytheists found it easier for themselves to convert to Christianity because of the cult of saints.

23. the police captain who arrested Polycarp

24. to this effect he even forged Romans 3;28 changing it from “justified by faith” into “justified by faith alone “. Today’s Protestant Bibles are gradually getting rid of Luther’s forgery. Luther’s preoccupation with his own tampering with the Scripture took at some stage a form of nearly-obsession. Admonished not to change the original text, he responded by stating: “If your Papist makes such an unnecessary row about the word ‘alone’, say right out to him: Dr. Martin Luther will have it so (…) I will have it so and my will is reason enough. I know very well that the word ‘alone’ is not in the Latin or the Greek text, and it was not necessary for the Papists to teach me that. It is true those letters are not in it, which letters the jackasses look at, as a cow stares at a new gate… It shall remain in my New Testament, and if all the Popish donkeys were to get mad and beside themselves, they will not get it out.”(quoted from “Surprised by Truth”, p. 129). What the “Popish donkeys” could not remove from “Luther’s own” Bible, is now being removed by more enlightened and honest Protestants. And Thank God  for that!

25. K.L. Woodward “Making Saints”, p.75

26. beatification and canonization of Joan took place in the first half of this century. Currently (since 1983) one miracle is necessary for beatification and  one more  for canonization.

27. anniversary of that liberation (8. May) has always been celebrated there, except for the years of the French Revolution.

28. the minutes of Joan’s trial in Rouen in 1431 (in French and Latin) as well as of her rehabilitation trial in 1456 (in Latin) have been preserved and proved very useful for the “reconstruction” of her life.

29. I would like to draw your attention to that “storming heaven”. For this is what it was: hopefully it was “storming heaven” and not “storming the pope or Vatican”…

30. from the very beginning (I century) Christians were unique in memorializing their saints not on their birthdays but on their dies natalis i.e. rebirth (in heaven)

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