What is a Saint? An Introduction for Protestants

All Saints

Fra Angelico. The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (about 1423-24).

It occurred to me the other morning in the shower (that’s where thoughts usually occur to me) that many Protestants might be troubled by the concept of saints and sainthood. I have heard Protestants say, “We don’t believe in saints.” I assure you that you do. Do you believe that there are people in Heaven? Then you believe in saints.

Martyrdom of Ignatius

The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch.

A saint, very simply — in the sense that the Roman Catholic Church declares one a saint and grants “Saint” as a title — is someone whom we believe, with certainty, is in Heaven. That’s all. From Latin sanctus (Greek ἁγιος or hagios), the word means “holy, sacred, set apart.” In biblical usage, as Protestants should be aware, “saints” refers to all the “holy ones,” the believers of the Church. When we state in the Apostles’ Creed that we believe in the “communion of saints,” we are saying that we believe all believers, both those who are living and those who have died, are a part of our Body and share in our communion with Christ. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews envisions in the Old Testament saints and prophets a “great cloud of witnesses” surrounding us (playing on μαρτυρέω, testify, bear witness, in Heb 11:39, and μάρτυρες, witnesses [also the same word as martyrs], in Heb 12:1), evoking the image of spectators in an arena as we “run . . . the race that is set before us.” How much more would those who die in Christ join this “cloud”!

Catholics venerate saints — we respect, honor, and revere them; we celebrate their memory — because of their great witness and example for us in faith, virtue, and godliness. They are the heroes of the faith whose godly lives we want to remember and whom we want to emulate. They are our spiritual ancestors, our predecessors, our loved ones, the members of our family who have gone to their reward, and yet are still with us in communion with Christ. We do not worship the saints; only God is worthy of worship. We venerate them in much the same way Americans venerate the memory of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.

Friends and Family

We have an unlimited calling plan.

So why do Catholics pray to saints? Well, if we believe that they too are part of our communion in Christ, a “great cloud of witnesses,” then why should we be separated from them? They are our friends and family, our brothers and sisters in the Lord who have crossed the river before us. They are already by Christ’s side. Why shouldn’t they pray for us? And aren’t they in a better position for that, to bring our needs and requests before God? Catholics believe that the saints can intercede for us. Praying to saints is nothing more than asking our loved ones to pray for us.

St. Luke the Evangelist

St. Luke the Evangelist, patron saint of physicians. (Simone Martini)

So what is the deal with patron saints? Well, just as the saints had particular interests and causes and affinities when they were here on earth, they do in Heaven too. A saint is held to be the patron (Latin patronus, protector, defender, advocate, patron — yes, like in Harry Potter) of the profession, activity, nation, cause, or place with which they were associated in earthly life. He or she is held to be a patron against specific diseases, afflictions, and dangers when, through suffering or death, they have gained victory over those things in Christ. And, through tradition, through practice, through trial and error, saints are held to be the patrons of these things because their intercession proves efficacious: because prayers for their aid in those causes work. Saints don’t have magical powers. Saints don’t, in themselves, produce effects on this earth. But by where they are and whom they’re with, they have immense spiritual power to intercede on our behalf.

St. Isidore of Seville

St. Isidore of Seville, paron saint of the Internet. (Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1655).

So what about relics? Why the macabre obsession with dead body parts? You may or may not be aware that in every Catholic altar there is a relic of some saint (Latin relictum, that which is left behind or remaining) — usually a small piece of bone or some other body part, but sometimes the whole body, or possibly an object the saint owned or touched. We hold that the person, his or her spirit, is in Heaven with Christ — but that the things which the saint left behind, his physical body most of all, offers a connection, an anchor, a bridge to their presence in that spiritual realm. The idea of placing relics under our altars — or building our churches and altars over their remains, as in the cases of Saint Peter and Saint Paul and many other ancient saints — is that by proximity to these connections, by association with these saints, we can draw as near to Heaven and to God as possible.

One last thing: Aren’t all Christians who die saints? We do believe that all Christians who die in the grace of God will go to Heaven, yes; but we also believe in Purgatory — which is a another kettle of fish that will require another post or three. But briefly: It is the calling of every Christian to take part in the life of Christ’s grace, to live within His Church and Sacraments, to pursue holiness and grace and daily be sanctified and converted (Latin converto, turn towards, change, transform) to Christ’s image. Most of us are not able to be fully transformed in this life — so for us there is a time of Purgatory, a fire in which we will be purified of our faults and made ready to stand before God. (No, we’re not being punished for our sins — Christ has already paid the penalty for those, the death we deserve — but spiritually, we still need to be purified. But — another time.)

St. Thérèse

St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower of Jesus.

Saints, on the other hand, are very special people who, through life in God’s grace, did achieve holiness and become wholly molded to Christ’s image in this life, to the extent that they could as fallen creatures. (Cf. the Wesleyan idea of entire sanctification.) They are people whose godliness is not in doubt, people like the Apostles and St. Francis and St. Thérèse. These days, there are so many very godly people dying that there is a formal process of canonizaton in the Church, through which a person’s sainthood is confirmed and verified, as best as we on Earth can: by asking them for intercession and seeing if those prayers are answered. Two or three miracles associated with a saint’s intercession is the usual standard. A martyr’s death is the saint’s golden ticket to immediate canonization: they pay the price in blood.

Are there Protestant saints? You bet. Just because someone hasn’t been formally declared a saint by the Church doesn’t mean they’re not one. Walk through any cemetery, and there are likely to be unknown saints lying all around, people who led truly godly lives and who merited Christ’s reward as soon as they crossed over from this life. Catholics are never in the business of declaring who isn’t or who can’t be saved, or who isn’t or can’t be saints: we believe God, in his infinite mercy, grants His grace and His favor according to His own will.

5 thoughts on “What is a Saint? An Introduction for Protestants

  1. We have examples of relics doing the work that they do to this day (working miracles) in the Holy Scriptures, such as with Elisha’s bones, the mantle of Eliah, or Paul’s handkerkchiefs. An incarnational view of the universe means that we do not view the bodies of those sanctified by theosis as mere dumb matter, but grace-bearing, having been transfigured by Christ. Indeed, having filled all things with himself, Christ has transformed the whole universe. If only we possessed the courage and the humility to let such a truth guide our approach to life.

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