What Is a Saint?

And How Do You Become One?

Stained galss window in St Vitus Cathedral
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Saints, broadly speaking, are all people who follow Jesus Christ and live their lives according to His teaching. Catholics, however, also use the term more narrowly to refer to especially holy men and women who, by persevering in the Christian Faith and living extraordinary lives of virtue, have already entered Heaven.

Sainthood in the New Testament

The word saint comes from the Latin sanctus and literally means "holy." Throughout the New Testament, saint is used to refer to all who believe in Jesus Christ and who followed His teachings. Saint Paul often addresses his epistles to "the saints" of a particular city (see, for instance, Ephesians 1:1 and 2 Corinthians 1:1), and the Acts of the Apostles, written by Paul's disciple Saint Luke, talks about Saint Peter going to visit the saints in Lydda (Acts 9:32). The assumption was that those men and women who followed Christ had been so transformed that they were now different from other men and women and, thus, should be considered holy. In other words, sainthood always referred not simply to those who had faith in Christ but more specifically to those who lived lives of virtuous action inspired by that faith.

Practitioners of Heroic Virtue

Very early on, however, the meaning of the word began to change. As Christianity began to spread, it became clear that some Christians lived lives of extraordinary, or heroic, virtue, beyond that of the average Christian believer. While other Christians struggled to live out the gospel of Christ, these particular Christians were eminent examples of the moral virtues (or cardinal virtues), and they easily practiced the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity and exhibited the gifts of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

The word saint, previously applied to all Christian believers, became more narrowly applied to such people, who were venerated after their deaths as saints, usually by the members of their local church or the Christians in the region where they had lived, because they were familiar with their good deeds. Eventually, the Catholic Church created a process, called canonization, through which such venerable people could be recognized as saints by all Christians everywhere.

Canonized and Acclaimed Saints

Most of the saints whom we refer to by that title (for instance, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton or Pope Saint John Paul II) have gone through this process of canonization. Others, such as Saint Paul and Saint Peter and the other apostles, and many of the saints from the first millennium of Christianity, received the title through acclamation—the universal recognition of their holiness.

Catholics believe that both types of saints (canonized and acclaimed) are already in Heaven, which is why one of the requirements for the canonization process is proof of miracles performed by the deceased Christian after his death. (Such miracles, the Church teaches, are the result of the saint's intercession with God in heaven.) Canonized saints can be venerated anywhere and prayed to publicly, and their lives are held up to Christians still struggling here on earth as examples to be imitated.