Saints 101

Everything You Need to Know About Saints in the Catholic Church

One thing that unites the Catholic Church to the Eastern Orthodox Churches and separates it from most Protestant denominations is the devotion to the saints, those holy men and women who have lived exemplary Christian lives and, after their deaths, are now in the presence of God in Heaven. Many Christians—even Catholics—misunderstand this devotion, which is based on our belief that, just as our life does not end with death, so too our relationships with our fellow members of the Body of Christ continue after their deaths. This Communion of Saints is so important that it is an article of faith in all Christian creeds, from the time of the Apostles' Creed.

What Is a Saint?

Saints, broadly speaking, are those who follow Jesus Christ and live their lives according to his teaching. They are the faithful in the Church, including those who are still alive. Catholics and Orthodox, however, also use the term narrowly to refer to especially holy men and women who, through extraordinary lives of virtue, have already entered Heaven. The Church recognizes such men and women through the process of canonization, which holds them up as examples for Christians still living here on earth.

Why Do Catholics Pray to Saints?

Pope Benedict prays in front of Pope John Paul II's coffin, May 1, 2011. (Vatican Pool/Getty Images)
Pope Benedict XVI prays in front of the coffin of Pope John Paul II, May 1, 2011. (Photo by Vatican Pool/Getty Images)

Like all Christians, Catholics believe in life after death, but the Church also teaches us that our relationship with other Christians does not end with death. Those who have died and are in Heaven in the presence of God can intercede with Him for us, just as our fellow Christians do here on earth when they prayer for us. Catholic prayer to saints is a form of communication with those holy men and women who have gone before us, and a recognition of the "Communion of Saints," living and dead.

Patron Saints

Statue of St. Jude Thaddeus. (Photo © flickr user timlewisnm; CC Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 Generic)
A statue of St. Jude Thaddeus from a church near Hondo, New Mexico. (Photo © flickr user timlewisnm; licensed under Creative Commons Some Rights Reserved)

Few practices of the Catholic Church are so misunderstood today as devotion to patron saints. From the earliest days of the Church, groups of the faithful (families, parishes, regions, countries) have chosen a particularly holy person who has passed into eternal life to intercede for them with God. The practice of naming churches after saints, and of choosing a saint's name for Confirmation, reflects this devotion.

The Doctors of the Church

Melkite icon of the Eastern Doctors of the Church
A Melkite icon of three of the Eastern Doctors of the Church. Godong/Robert Harding World Imagery/Getty Images

The Doctors of the Church are great saints known for their defense and explanation of the truths of the Catholic Faith. Thirty-five saints, including four female saints, have been named Doctors of the Church, covering all eras in Church history.

The Litany of the Saints

Central Russian icon of selected saints. (Photo © Slava Gallery, LLC; used with permission.)
Central Russian icon (circa mid-1800's) of selected saints. (Photo © Slava Gallery, LLC; used with permission.)

The Litany of the Saints is one of the oldest prayers in continuous use in the Catholic Church. Most commonly recited on All Saints Day and at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday, the Litany of the Saints is an excellent prayer for use throughout the year, drawing us more fully into the Communion of Saints. The Litany of Saints addresses the various types of saints, and includes examples of each, and asks all of the saints, individually and together, to pray for us Christians who continue our earthly pilgrimage.