The Blessed Mother. St. Joseph. St. Thérèse the Little Flower. St. Anthony. St. Jude. These are arguably the most beloved saints among Catholics in the United States.
You will find statues or pictures of them in parish churches and private homes, just as you will find portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in your local town hall. Our civic leaders urge us to respect and imitate the patriotism of Washington and Lincoln, just as the Church urges us to imitate the virtues of the saints.
But that is where the similarity ends, because Catholics have a close, personal, intimate relationship with their favorite saints that even the most ardent American patriot would not dream of having with his or her favorite Founding Father.
Catholics trust their favorite saints, they have confidence in them, they regard them as faithful friends who stand ready to use their influence on our behalf.
How do the saints exert their influence? They pray with us, they pray for us and they present our petitions to God, whom they see face to face. It is a remarkable thing, that glorified souls in heaven are willing to come the assistance of sinful souls here on earth.
Communion of Saints
Our friendship with the saints is rooted in a theological concept we all have heard of but probably haven’t spent much time studying: the Communion of Saints. Every time we pray the Apostles’ Creed, we declare that the Communion of Saints is one of the things in which we believe. But what is it? The short answer is the Catholic Church is the Communion of Saints. We here on earth, the souls in purgatory and the souls in heaven are all united in one sacred community.
All of us in the Communion of Saints share a common faith — it is one of two things that bind us together. The second bond is charity, in the sense of compassion. It is compassion that moves us on earth and the saints in heaven to pray for the souls in purgatory, to hasten their time of purification so they can reach the glory of God’s kingdom. Compassion also moves the saints to intercede for us, pleading with Almighty God to assist us in times of trouble and grant us the graces we need to remain faithful to him so we can be united with him forever in heaven.
Writing of the saints in Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the bishops assembled at the Second Vatican Council said, “By their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped” (No. 49). We know that great saints, on their deathbed, actually looked forward to the good they could do for us once they reached heaven.
“Do not weep,” the dying St. Dominic told his brother Dominicans, “for I shall be more useful to you after my death and I shall help you then more effectively than during my life.”
And in one of her last conversations, St. Thérèse of Lisieux said, “I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth.”
Why honor the saints?
When we venerate Our Lady and the saints, we are following the example of Jesus Christ. As the Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid writes in his book, “Any Friend of God’s Is a Friend of Mine” (Basilica Press, $9.95), “We on earth venerate our brothers and sisters in heaven, the saints, precisely because the Lord showers them with unimaginable honor and glory.”
Think of the unique graces Christ granted to his Blessed Mother. Recall the courage of the martyrs such as St. Agnes and St. Lawrence, the constancy of holy monks and nuns such as St. Benedict and his twin sister St. Scholastica, the profound charity of St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac. They did all these things for love of God, and, as their reward, they received great graces here on earth and a crown in heaven. If God honors his saints, then we should honor them, too.
How to pray to saints
You could probably fill a good-sized library with formal prayers to the saints. The most basic prayer, which each of us has prayed at one time of another, is, “St. (Name), pray for me.” It is the same request we would make of a family member, a neighbor, a priest or a sister. St. James tells us, “The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful” (Jas 5:16). The prayers of the saints in heaven are even more powerful, which is why the Church urges us to call upon the saints for help.
It is important to remember that if our prayers are answered, it is God, not the saint, who did the answering. Even the Blessed Mother cannot perform miracles. All miracles are wrought by Almighty God, but often he will answer prayers offered to him on our behalf by the saints — it is yet another sign of the love and esteem in which he holds his faithful ones.
As old as the Church
Veneration of the saints is as old as Christianity itself. The Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament is a record of the building up of the Church by St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Barnabas and the other apostles and disciples. It tells the story of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. And it records miracles — from the angel who delivered St. Peter from prison to the time St. Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake, yet suffered no harm. In these extraordinary events, we see the hand of God bestowing special graces on his saints so that the world will know that the Gospel message they preach is true.
The first saints were the men and women we read of the New Testament, followed by the first martyrs. Other saints followed; by the year 100, Christians had adopted St. Michael the Archangel as the special guardian of the Church. From the Old Testament Book of Daniel, written about 200 B.C., we know that the people of Israel knew of Michael the Archangel and regarded him as their protector. “At that time,” the prophet Daniel wrote, “shall arise Michael, the great prince, guardian of your people” (Dn 12:1). Around the year A.D. 100, a Christian named Hermas (possibly the brother of the Pope St. Pius I) wrote a mystical work titled “The Shepherd,” in which he refers to “the great and glorious angel Michael,” who is the defender of Christians.
From the eyewitness account of the martyrdom of the bishop of Smyrna, St. Polycarp, we know that Christians were already celebrating feast days in honor the martyrs, meeting at their tombs on the anniversaries of their martyrdoms, where Mass was celebrated using the saint’s sarcophagus as an altar. (This led to the custom of enshrining relics of the saints, especially martyrs, in the altars of Catholic churches and chapels).
From the age of the apostles the term “saint” had been applied to all Christian believers, living and dead. By the year 200, Christians began to use “saint” as a title for the martyrs. There was no formal canonization process at that time; a person became a saint by popular acclaim. For example, after the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas, or Felicity (died 203), the Christians of Carthage — who knew these two women and had witnessed their deaths — began to venerate them as saints. In those early days of the Church, canonization was as simple as that.
With perhaps only two exceptions — the Blessed Mother and St. John the Apostle, both of whom died of natural causes — all the early saints were martyrs. There is some dispute whether Mary died or “fell asleep” before she was assumed into heaven. The Church has never spoken definitively on this point, but we do know that she did not suffer martyrdom.
With the Edict of Milan, published by Emperor Constantine I in 313, Roman persecution of the Church came to an end in most of the Roman Empire (it lingered for a few more years in some outskirts). In those peaceful days, new types of saints emerged, whom we know as confessors, virgins and widows. Among these saints were St. Paul the Hermit, St. Anthony of the Desert, St. Martin of Tours, St. Marcella, St. Helena and St. Melania the Elder.
Christians still revered the martyrs for their courage and faithfulness unto death, but the unmartyred saints offered new virtues for Christians to emulate. Hermits, monks and nuns left their families and friends and gave up the comforts of secular life to immerse themselves in prayer and contemplation in order to draw closer to God. Missionary saints risked their lives to bring salvation to people who knew nothing of the Gospel.
As the centuries rolled on, the Church offered even more examples of holiness to the Catholic faithful. The 13th-century princess, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, is a model of charity and humility: She brought food and clothing to the poor and founded a hospital where she spent the last years of her life serving in the wards as a nurse. St. Margaret of Cortona lived for nine years as a nobleman’s mistress, yet she repented her sins and returned to the sacraments.
The example of St. Margaret of Cortona is especially important since there is a tendency to believe that all the saints were always infallibly perfect, that they were never troubled by temptations and never fell into sin. This is not true. The saints were human, subject to all the trials and failings that we wrestle with everyday. In fact, some of the saints were absolutely wicked: St. Olga and her grandson St. Vladimir were killers; St. Camillus de Lellis was a card shark; St. Mary of Egypt delighted in corrupting innocent men. The lesson we learn from these notorious sinners is, if they could repent and become saints, there is hope for all of us.
The saints are the heroes of the Church. They are our role models — men, women and children whose virtues we try to imitate. They are our inspiration, our companions in good times and in bad. Through their prayers we receive countless blessings from God. Finally, anyone who strives to imitate one of the saints will draw closer to God and, by his grace, become a saint, too.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of the several books, including the forthcoming titles “Saints Preserved: An Encyclopedia of Relics” (Image, $16) and “Patron Saints” (OSV, $14.95).
Relics of the Saints (sidebar)
Around the year 155, during Emperor Antoninus Pius’ persecution of the Church, the 86-year-old bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp (c.69-c.155), was arrested. The good old man had been converted by St. John the Evangelist and had served as bishop for nearly 60 years. The executioner stabbed St. Polycarp in the chest, then burned his body. According to an eyewitness account of Polycarp’s martyrdom, the Christians of Smyrna waited until the crowd had dispersed and the ashes cooled, then they collected whatever had not been consumed by the fire. “And so we afterwards took up his bones,” the anonymous author of this account says, “which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy, and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom for the commemoration of those that have already fought in the contest, and for the training and preparation of those that shall do so hereafter.”
Here, in a single sentence, we discover that already by 155, Christians revered and treasured the relics of the martyrs; they celebrated his feast day on the anniversary of his martyrdom (here called St. Polycarp’s “birthday” since it is the day he was born into eternal life in heaven), and the martyr was held up as model of fidelity and courage to other Christians who might meet the same fate.
Our Protestant friends, and more than a few Catholics, are uneasy about the Church’s veneration of relics. Yet this devotion is not only ancient, it is biblical. In the Second Book of Kings, we read of a dead man who was being lowered into a grave beside the body of the prophet Elisha. “... when the man came in contact with the bones of Elisha, he came back to life and rose to his feet” (2 Kgs 13:20-21).
In St. Luke’s Gospel, there is the famous account of a woman who suffered a hemorrhage for 12 years, yet she was instantly healed when she touched the fringe of Christ’s robe (Lk 8:42-48).
In their gospels, Sts. Matthew and Mark tell of crowds of sick people who mobbed Jesus and were healed simply by touching his garment. (Mt 14:35-36 and Mk 6:56)
The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the people of Jerusalem carried the sick out into the street. As St. Peter passed by, all those upon whom his shadow fell were cured (Acts 5:14-16). Elsewhere in Acts we find that “handkerchiefs and aprons” that had been touched by St. Paul were carried to the sick and those possessed by evil spirits. As these relics of St. Paul were applied to the sick and the possessed, “diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.” (Acts 19:11-12)
In the 16th century, the bishops at the Council of Trent explained why the Catholic Church venerates holy relics. “The holy bodies of holy martyrs and of others now living with Christ — which bodies were the living members of Christ and ‘the temple of the Holy Ghost’ (1 Cor 6:19) and which are by him to be raised to eternal life and to be glorified — are to be venerated by the faithful, for through these [relics] many benefits are bestowed by God on men.”
St. Anthony of Padua finds lost objects. St. Lucy clears up eye trouble. St. Jude tackles situations that appear to be impossible. Patron saints are part of the fabric of Catholic devotional life and have been for at least 1,000 years. Over the centuries, virtually every ailment, every profession, every condition of life has acquired a patron — and in many cases, more than one.
As is so often the case in Catholicism, the concept of patron saints has Roman roots. In ancient Rome, it was considered praiseworthy for wealthy, aristocratic men and women to use their influence to assist their less well-born and well-off neighbors. These helpful aristocrats were known as patrons, and the people they helped were called clients.
The early Christians regarded themselves as the clients of their heavenly patrons, the saints. Here are some patron saints and their causes:
St. Ambrose: bees, beekeepers
St. Apollinia: sufferers of dental pain
St. Sebastian: archers
St. Francis of Assisi: the environmental movement
St. Clare of Assisi: television
St. Bernadette: asthmatics
St. Isidore of Seville: the Internet
St. Joseph Cupertino: aviators and astronauts
St. Fiacre: gardeners, cab drivers
St. Julian the Hospitaller: circus workers, travelers
How many saints are there? (sidebar)
There is no official tally of all the saints, but a reasonable estimate would run to the tens of thousands. The Theban Legion, for example, numbered 6,600 Egyptian Christian soldiers, all of whom were massacred by order of Emperor Maximianus Herculius around the year 287. St. Zeno and his 10,203 companions were all Christian men who were arrested and forced to perform slave labor, building the immense Baths of Diocletian in Rome. By order of Emperor Diocletian, they were all killed around the year 300. So, with just these two groups of martyrs, we have nearly 17,000 saints. Some readers may recall the story of St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgin companions, but since the story is almost certainly mythical, we can’t add the 11,000 to the final tally.
Many, perhaps most, saints are obscure — local holy men, women or children who were venerated by Catholics in a particular region but never achieved an international following.
One example is St. Sicaire, whose relics are preserved in Brantome Abbey in France. Sicaire was a baby at the time of his martyrdom. Legend says that he was one of the Holy Innocents, one of the baby boys of Bethlehem killed by order of King Herod, who hoped that the Christ Child would be one of the victims in the general slaughter.
Another local saint is St. Candida, a woman who lived as a hermit near Morcombelake in Dorset, England. She was killed in the ninth century during a Viking raid. Her body was enshrined in the parish church, which became known as the Church of St. Candida and the Holy Cross in the village of Whitchurch Canonicorum. Devotion to St. Candida never extended very far beyond her native parish.
From the thousands of local saints are many who deserve more attention, including:
Blessed Carino (died 1293). In the 13th century, the Church, especially in southern France and northern Italy, was afflicted by the Cathar heresy, which taught that anything physical was evil, and that included the Blessed Sacrament. St. Peter of Verona, a former Cathar who became a Dominican friar, proved especially effective in bringing Cathars back to the Church. In 1252, Cathars in Milan hired assassins to ambush and murder Peter. One of the killers was Carino. In the aftermath of the killing, Carino repented, returned to the Catholic faith and joined the Dominicans in the town of Forli. After his death, the people of Forli and the surrounding countryside venerated Carino as a saint.
Feast day: April 28.
St. Hallvard (died c.1043). Hallvard, a member of Norway’s royal family, was aboard his ship docked in Oslo harbor when a woman ran up and begged him to protect her from a group of men who were out to kill her. Hallvard helped the woman aboard and set sail. Minutes later the pursuers arrived on the dock. They fired volley after volley of arrows at the ship, killing Hallvard and the woman he had tried to save.
Feast day: May 14.
St. Lydwina of Schiedam (1380-1433). One frigid winter’s day, Lydwina, age 16, went ice skating with friends. She lost her balance and fell, striking her head on the ice. The neurological damage left her an invalid. Inspired by her parish priest, Lydwina regarded her sick room as her convent where she offered up her prayers and sufferings for sinners. Neighbors asked for her prayers and sought her spiritual advice. The local bishop was so impressed by Lydwina’s holiness that he permitted her parish priest to bring her holy Communion twice each week — a rare privilege in the 15th century, when most Catholics received the Eucharist only once or twice a year.
Feast day: April 14.