Over on the Angels article, I avoided digressing as far as I might by saying I’d get into saints in a later article; so here we go!
What is a saint?
A saint is someone who is recognized as being united with God; a holy one. English is actually a bit odd– we’ve got a lot of ways of saying things, and “saint” is a good example. In most languages, there’s no difference between how you say “holy one” and how you say “saint.” This can result in things that sound very strange to modern ears, like talking about “Saint Jesus.” Jimmy Akin has a great FAQ if you want to know more, but I’m going to steal from it shamelessly for a lot of this article so you might want to wait on that to avoid boredom. (Not that his writing is boring, but because reading something in more detail that you’ve already read is more interesting than reading a little information about something you just absorbed a huge amount on.)
Now, when we talk about a saint, there’s a few very common ways we commonly mean it. There’s a “saint” as in the title– Saint Michael or Saint Joseph; there’s a saint as in the description– “my mom is a saint.”
To simplify greatly, the title is the Church officially saying “yep, you’re right– they’re holy. It’s OK to publicly hold them up as holy.”
This is, as I said, a massive simplification.
How do we know?
We “know” someone is a saint by the infallible proclamation of the Church– that’s what canonization is – officially recognizing someone as a saint. Beyond being dead, so as to avoid a change in behavior that would change their status, there are four stages involved currently. The system has grown out of trying to avoid abuses, and will without a doubt end up changing in the future; here’s the EWTN over-view, which I will summarize.
Servant of God
When someone dies, and either five years pass or the Vatican officially grants a waiver of the waiting period, they are considered for sainthood. At that point, the Bishop of the location where the person under consideration died can petition to start a ‘Cause for Beatification and Canonization’. If the Vatican says “I don’t see why not,” they go ahead. (Yes, I’m being slightly flip, but that’s not a bad translation of the sense of ‘nihil obstat,’ literally ‘nothing stands in the way.’) At this point, the person being investigated can be referred to as “Servant of God.” For example, some of those who admire Professor Tolkien of Lord of the Rings fame started a facebook group to attempt to persuade the Archbishop of Birmingham to pursue his Cause; just this April the effort was forwarded to the archbishop. If the Bishop decides to pursue it, and if the Cause receives a nihil obstat, then he’d be “the Servant of God, J.R.R. Tolkien.”
Regarding veneration, perhaps more commonly comes to mind in association with St. Bede, although he is actually a saint. Now, when used technically rather than because it’s been used forever, this is the stage beyond Servant of God– literally years of researching all public and private writings, all actions, everything to try to find any kind of a problem, and further that the Bishop is willing to vouch for the Servant of God’s heroic virtue. If he is, all the supporting information is forwarded to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. They go over the information, and vote, and it either dies right there, or is passed on to the Pope, who has the final yes-or-no say on if there is enough cause to carry on with the Cause for Beatification and Canonization; if he grants a Decree of Heroic Virtues, the person becomes “The Venerable Sheen,” or “The Venerable Servant of God Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.”
Somewhat confusing, this differentiation doesn’t mean it’s allowable for them to be public venerated– but “publicly venerated” doesn’t mean that you’re in trouble if, for example, your baby is stillborn and you pray and ask others to pray for the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen to intercede on his behalf (such as for James Fulton Engstrom, the two-thirds-verified miracle for the cause of the Venerable Sheen, is now a normal and healthy three when he had no heartbeat for an hour), it means doing so in the name of the Church, as if you are speaking on behalf of the Church. For a better analogy, consider the rules about activism in military uniform, for those familiar with the US military.
Once the Decree of Heroic Virtues has been received, then the search is on: has this person interceded on anyone’s behalf? I’ll do an article on miracles later, but that is what is being sought for, and tested. Official recognition of miracles goes by where it happens, rather than the bishop responsible for the saint. Something I’m sure that whichever bishop would otherwise be responsible for investigating Marian miracles is very glad of! More practically, a local power will have better access to information and make for an easier, more accurate investigation. As we all know from the internet, it’s very easy for even those of the best will to leave out information that doesn’t support what they already believe, and those without more of the picture to draw inaccurate conclusions– and that’s without worries about those who actually mean to cause others harm.
In the case of martyrs, their death can serve as their first miracle– if, after investigation, it’s found to be true martyrdom, then the Pope issues a Decree of Martyrdom. This can actually be complicated– for a recent case, the question of if Archbishop Romero of the San Salvadoran Archdiocese, was killed because he was an obstacle to those who killed him, or for his faith? What if the only reason he was an obstacle was because he was true to God? Or was he shot at the very altar because such an outrage is a powerful threat and made the death squads even more terrifying? This argument was going on for quite literally my whole life– John Paul II prayed at the tomb of the Archbishop in ’83– and only this year was Pope Francis able to recognize his martyrdom, and on May 23 he officially became Blessed Oscar Arnulfo Romero. Being ‘Blessed’ means that local churches can officially pray for his intercession– that public veneration I mentioned. If you were able to make a long form Easter Vigil, there’s a good chance that you heard a local ‘Blessed’ in there somewhere if there weren’t enough baptismal or confirmation saints to wear out your lector.
You do the same thing as for verifying they’re blessed all over again. Find a miracle and investigate it to be sure it’s worthy of belief by first the bishop of where it happened, then by a sub-group of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, then by the heads of the congregation, and then the Pope. If they get a second Decree of Miracle (or a first, for verified martyrs) then the person can be canonized– recognized as a saint for veneration by the entire, universal Church.
I want to repeat again: the Pope is not making someone a saint, he is officially recognizing them as a saint. If they weren’t a saint, there would be no miracles to investigate in the first place. Just because someone is not recognized as of yet doesn’t mean they are not at the very throne– it may just mean there’s a paperwork snarl, such as the disagreement about who gets custody about the Venerable Sheen’s mortal remains.
Why do we have saints?
Because people aren’t all bad.
Sorry, my sense of humor… we recognize saints officially for two reasons, the good and the bad: the good is because they are a powerful aid in our drawing closer to God; the bad is because someone falsely portrayed as a saint would be a powerfully damaging force on faith. Good heavens, my initial inspiration for this entire series is the (possibly best wishes in the world) falsehoods that were driving folks away from the Truth.
You may have even heard of some false saints- heard of The Sainted Death? Not to be confused with artistic personifications of death, but set up in shrines rather like the ones you’d find for the Holy Mother. The Sainted Death AKA, Santa Muerte or the ‘murder saint’ in some news stories; it was fairly big in the news a few years ago, but variations in pop culture are old enough that at least one urban fantasy novel from about the early 90s or late 80s– I think it was Mercedes Lackey– used a variation as a plot point, and the author included some fascinating show-your-work on the subject.
A bit less modern, a Catholic looking into voodoo is going to be kind of surreal as things are perfectly familiar, perfectly normal…then WHAM! where did that come from? it takes a radical turn from anything that can be explained away into Catholic theology.
These similarities sometimes often provide fodder for those who are looking for a route of attack on Catholic topics, as if the truth of something is lessened by the appearance being borrowed for something else entirely. These are home brew philosophies, systems or religions– just like anyone with a half-decent sense of history will go through “satanist” symbols and be able to identify where they were lifted from a wide variety of sources. (Seriously, St. Peter’s Cross as anti-Christian? It says a lot about the ignorance, possibly willful, of the Satanists- nothing about the sources of those symbols.)
The people making the systems are just using whatever looks interesting to them and applying it to an existing belief. Supposedly, that’s where most of these things come from– people keeping pagan beliefs and just pasting Catholic symbols on top of them.
On the flip side:
There are actually some lovely statues in Japan that are exactly the opposite of the satanists-absconding-with-whatever-looks-cool; while Catholicism was suppressed in Japan, the Christians there would hide Marian statues as that of the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kannon, or flat-out re-purpose existing statues if they had to– standing before a statue made to honor Kannon, and praying to Mary. During the hundreds of years of quite harsh suppression, this kept the faith alive…and had wondeful fruits when the Japanese government finally allowed a church to be built for foreigners:
Inside the church, above the side altar, there was placed a statue brought from France of Mary with the child Jesus in her arms. The Japanese inhabitants called the church, the “French Temple.” When the word that “a statue of Mary was in the French Temple,” spread to the hidden Christian community of Urakami, the certainty was raised in their hearts: “If there is the statue of Holy Mary, the foreigner of the French Temple must be a “pater,” a priest!” In fact, they had awaited a priest for seven generations. On the March 17, 1865, a group of about ten members of the hidden Christian community, pretending to be tourists, entered into the church. One of them, a woman named Yuri, being anxious to know if the foreigner would be a pater, approached Fr. Petitjean, and said “We have the same hearts as yours,” and more, “Santa Maria no go-zō wa doco?“, which means “Where is the statue of Holy Mary?” This astonishing question revealed to the French missionary the miraculous survival of a Christian community in Nagasaki. Then, Fr. Petitjean, full of joy and emotion, led them to the side altar, where was placed the statue of the Virgin. Kneeling down, they couldn’t bear any more and exclaimed with emotion: “She’s really Holy Mary! Look! She brings in her arms her Son, Jesus!”
That’s basically why we recognize saints– because they can help bring us closer to God.