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What’s a Saint?

What’s a saint? How do we define it? Think of it as a Christian version of the deified dead of the ancient Mediterranean: born mortal but after death venerated for something that happened in life. They were also often martyrs and, like the deified dead of the ancient world, were strongly associated with a location or activity. Hence the ‘patron saint’ concept.

The idea is very similar to the hero cults, and Ferguson notes that “some features of the cult of heroes continued in the cult of saints under Christianity (Ferguson, p. 158). 

Yarrow makes a similar statement, directly comparing them to the heroes of mythology:

Heroes are universal to human culture. Their appeal lies in a natural desire for us to admire others, to look up to them as models to imitate, and to think of them as our friends and patron-protectors (the original Greek meaning of the word). As we shall see, saints, the inheritors of classical heroic antecedents, are very special kinds of heroes…” (p.2)

Table of Contents

A Basic Definition

Simon Yarrow gives a very concise definition: Saints are persons who, by various means, have demonstrated such worth in their lifetimes as to posthumously merit the company of God (p. 4).

There are also strong parallels between saints and deities, with Ferguson noting, “When Christianity replaced paganism, the saints took over the functions of the specialized local deities. (Ferguson, p. 182).  Also similar to how gods were regarded, they often have titles and epithets associated with them. Mary, for example, has dozens of titles and epithets defining her actions or relationship to specific places. 

What do saints do?

Inspire and intercede, in short. The earliest saints tended to be martyrs, and “the martyrs were venerated as inspiring models, heroic Christians who imitated Christ even to sharing in his sacrificial death. They were held up as examples to inspire others with the courage to face persecution and death.”(Bokenkotter, 148)

They’re almost like bridges between the worlds, and “relics, clothes, and personal effects, and the places they visited, offer the rest of us a path to the divine.” (Yarrow, p. 6) They do this with heavenly presence (praesentia), and “physical memorabilia and bodily remains became powerful means by which Christians attuned themselves to the heavenly presence (praesentia) of the saints.(Yarrow, p. 19)

You could also argue that they acted as tangible focus points for worshippers because their physical remains, in addition to helping believers ‘attune’ themselves, can serve as reasons for founding a church:

“At first the body of the martyr was treated with religious awe, and those who built churches over the relics took great care not to disturb the resting place of the saint. But eventually a change in attitude took place and the practice began of moving the body to satisfy some political or religious purpose.”(Bokenkotter, 148)

Beyond that, they’re also considered to have special, God-granted powers. 

“They were also regarded as spirits endowed with supernatural power, who would work miracles for those who invoked their names or venerated their relics”(Bokenkotter, 148)

This is acknowledged by the church. The Second Vatican council

“in their Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, they simply reiterated the traditional teaching, which encourages the faithful to rely on the intercession of the saints in heaven, to love them and honor them, and make use of their power and help in obtaining benefits from God through His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. By reason of the mystical bond that joins all members of God’s Church, both living and dead, we share in their merits. The bishop reminds us also that, as images of Christ, the saints vividly manifest God’s presence, show us a sign of His Kingdom and draw us to greater holiness.” (Bokenkotter, 145-146)

How does one become a saint?

The process has changed over the centuries, and “for many centuries, the making of a saint was a very democratic affair. Before any official proclamation, the cult of the saint first depended on popular acclaim.”(Bokenkotter, 153)

Canonization is a process in itself, and the reasoning behind it “has often been just as much a political, sociological, and diplomatic matter as a religious concern.” (Yarrow, p. 5), but the process itself seems to have settled somewhat in the 1700s:

“A definitive treatise on canonization in his De Servorum Dei Beatificastione et Beatorum Canonizatione, in four huge folio volumes, in 1734. With some modifications, its procedure is still basic. Three requirements were laid down: all candidates must manifest doctrinal purity, heroic virtue and miraculous intercession after death”(Bokenkotter, 155)

There are various criteria, as Bokenkotter explains: 

“According to canon law, at least two miracles are required before a person can be beatified (which allows his or her to be venerated in a particular region or in a particular religious order) and then two more indicative of the intercessory power of the saint are demanded before final canonization. The miracles themselves are scrutinized by experts and generally involve a cure of some organic disease that cannot be explained by natural powers ”(Bokenkotter, 150)

Miracles are the most important aspect, and “from the sixth century on, this criterion became the sine non qua for establishing a confessor’s right to a cult”(Bokenkotter, 149)

What’s a “patron saint”?

A patron saint is a saint who is linked directly to something, an activity, profession, state of being, event, etc. This can be popular consensus or an official assignment b the church. There are hundreds of patron saints, some of them quite weird.

The Catholic Encyclopedia offers the following definition:

“A patron is one who has been assigned by a venerable tradition, or chosen by election, as a special intercessor with God and the proper advocate of a particular locality, and is honoured by clergy and people with a special form of religious observance. The term “patron”, being wider in its meaning than that of “titular”, may be applied to a church, a district, a country, or a corporation. The word “titular” is applied only to the patron of a church or institution. Both the one and the other, according to the legislation now in force, must have the rank of a canonized saint.”


  • Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. Eerdmans Publishing Company
  • Yarrow, Simon. Saints: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions). Oxford University Press.
  • Parkinson, Henry. Catholic Encyclopedia (1913). “Patron Saint.”
  • Bokenkotter, Thomas. (1985). Essential Catholicism. Doubleday
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