What is a saint?

First Saints Alive Column - What is a Saint?

For the past three years we have provided the people of St. Thomas Church with an exclusive column, “All God’s Children.” Each weekly installment told a story related in some way to the liturgical readings of the particular Sunday. Now we have finished the three-year cycle of these readings, so “All God’s Children” has run its course. We hope it has helped you to see a little better how God is reflected in the lives of his creatures.

“Saints Alive” will succeed “All God’s Children.” Henceforth (God willing, and the saints assisting), we shall tell you the stories of a saint or “blessed” drawn from the calendar of each current week. Some of them will be familiar to you. Many more will not. There is such a vast array of saints from every clime and time and condition that it is good to be reminded of their infinite variety. What reflections we express on them are our own. The stories themselves will be drawn mostly from classic references, available in any library: Butler’s Lives of the Saints (Thurston and Attwater, editors); the Catholic Encyclopedia (1907); and the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967).

Before we start telling you about the saints, however, we should first answer the question, “What is a saint?”

A saint, in the broad sense, is any person who has died in God’s grace and joined Him in heaven. In this sense, we all have friends and relatives who are saints. But we can’t be sure they are in heaven because the Church cannot tell us. (Unofficially, of course, we can be certain that our kith and kin who have died as baptized infants are in God’s presence.)

A saint in the strict sense (the sense we shall use) is one who is not only in heaven but has been officially declared to be there by the Church on the basis of miracles wrought through his intercession. The act by which a pope makes such an (infallible) declaration is called a “canonization.” Now, the popes also single out for honor other holy persons whom they call “blessed.” (The Latin word for “blessed” is “beatus”, so the papal declaration in their case is called a “beatification” (pronounced: bee-at-ti-fi-cayshun) - not as newspapers often call it, a “beautification”!) To these, a more limited veneration is allowed. Thus, our own American Indian maiden, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, has a Mass of her own, but it may still be celebrated only in the United States and Canada. “Blesseds” are very often later canonized. Mother Seton, for instance, was declared “Blessed” in 1963, and was canonized a saint in 1975.

Why does the Church propose saints and blesseds for our special honor? So that they may serve as our models, and our intercessors.

We all need good models. If we have any sense at all, we avoid associating with people worse than ourselves. They drag us down to their level of underachievement. We admire and imitate people better than ourselves. They encourage us to live up to God’s standards. Even the saints had their own “creative models.” Ignatius of Loyola, for example, was converted to a better life by reading the lives of the saints. Ignatius, then a professional soldier, concluded, “These were of the same form as I. Why should I not do what they have done?” So he did!

We all need intercessors, to put in a good word for us with the “powers that be.” We ask each other, “Please pray God that I may be granted this or that favor.” Why shouldn’t we also ask the saints to be our middlemen? They belong, as we do, to the Communion of Saints united by baptism. Already in God’s eternal presence they are on the best possible term, with Him. Certain Protestant theologians object to prayer to saints declaring that Christ alone is our mediator with God. Of course, he is. Catholics teach that it is precisely because the saints are joined with Christ in his Mystical Body that they can act as our middlemen to Him. Indeed, the saints know we are praying to them only because God reveals to them our petitions. And their favors to us are granted only through Christ’s power. So St. Therese of Lisieux could confidently, while still alive, promise: “After my death I will let fall a shower of roses;” and “I will spend my heaven in doing good upon earth.”

The saints are dead to earth but alive to heaven. They are far closer to us now than before their deaths. There is a lovely little child’s bedtime prayer in Italian dialect that says, “Tutt’ i sant hin mi frade”': “All the saints are my brothers.” “Saints Alive” will introduce you to a number of these “big brothers and sisters.” May they inspire you and aid you!

--Father Robert F. McNamara

(Update: Kateri Tekakwitha was canonized on October 21, 2012.)