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.

Canonization Process

The first person to be canonized outside of Rome by a Pope was in 993 CE, when Saint Udalric, the Bishop of Augsburg (893–973) was named a saint by Pope John XV. Udalric was a very virtuous man who had inspired the men of Augsburg when they were under siege. Since then, the procedure varied considerably over the centuries since then, the process is today quite specific. In 1643, Pope Urban VIII issued the Apostolic letter Caelestis Hierusalem cives that exclusively reserved the right to canonize and beatify to the Apostolic See; other changes included evidentiary requirements and the creation of the office of the Promoter of the Faith, also known as the Devil's Advocate, who is assigned to critically question the virtues of anyone suggested for sainthood. 

The current system of beatification has been in place since 1983, under an Apostolic constitution of Divinus Perfectionis Magister of Pope John Paul II. Candidates for sainthood must first be named Servant of God (Servus Dei in Latin), and that person is named at least five years after his or her death by the bishop of the place where the person died. The diocese completes an exhaustive search of the candidate's writings, sermons, and speeches is undertaken, writes a detailed biography, and collects eyewitness testimony. If the prospective saint passes, permission is then granted for the body of the Servant of God to be exhumed and examined, to ensure that no superstitious or heretical worship of the individual has taken place. 

Venerable and Blessed

The next status the candidate goes through is Venerable (Venerabilis), in which the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints recommends to the pope that he proclaim the Servant of God "Heroic in Virtue," meaning that he has exercised to a heroic degree the virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Venerables then make the step to Beatification or "Blessed," when they are deemed "worthy of belief," that is to say, that the church is certain that the individual is in heaven and saved. 

Finally, a Beatified individual may be canonized as a saint, if at least two miracles have been performed through the intercession of the individual after his or her death. Only then can the Rite of Canonization be performed by the Pope, when the Pople declares that the individual is with God and a worthy example of following Christ. Among the most recent people canonized include Popes John XXIII and John Paul II in 2014, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta in 2016. 

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.