One of the things that stands out to non-Catholics about the Catholic Church is her veneration of saints, though this practice is often misunderstood. So, what does the Church teach us about saints and how they are there to help us?
First, we must differentiate between saints in general and those who are canonized. When we pray the Apostles’ Creed, we say that we believe in the “communion of saints.” We understand the communion of saints to be all members of the faithful, whether living or dead. This includes, of course, those in heaven, but also those in purgatory who are undergoing their purification process and on their way to heaven. We are all part of the communion of saints because we are all members of the mystical body of Christ and are, in fact, a communion under Him.
We can access members of Christ’s mystical body, whether alive or passed on, to intercede in prayer on our behalf. For example, say you have an illness or are up for a promotion at work – you can call your friend and ask him or her to pray for you. In other words, you can ask that person to intercede on your behalf and ask God to grant whatever it is you ask. We do this sort of thing all the time, as do most Christians. However, since the living and the dead are all still members of the same mystical body, we can also ask our deceased love ones to intercede for us in exactly the same way. They can talk to God too and, if anything, they are closer to Him than we are. So, when Catholics say they are praying to a saint, what they mean is that they are talking to that saint to ask for his or her intercession for a particular issue.
Now, the Church can declare certain specific individuals to be canonized saints. These are men and women who have demonstrated exemplary holiness by the way they practiced heroic virtue while living (CCC #828). The purpose for formally recognizing and honoring these saints is to provide us with examples of how we should strive for our own holiness and live a life of heroic virtue. Is there a living person in your life that serves as a great Christian role model for you? Why should the saints be any different just because they are no longer living? Just like all humans, canonized saints were different people with different gifts and approaches to their holiness. In having access to such a variety of saints, we can find models for us as individuals on our own path to holiness. For example, you might be attracted to St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s “little way,” or to St. Faustina’s focus on the all-consuming mercy of Jesus. Saints are also typically given a patronage, or are assigned as an advocate for a particular thing, place, or cause. So, teachers might be inspired to learn more about St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle and to discover how he used his vocation of educating schoolchildren to grow in holiness and virtue. Also, just like we ask our living and deceased loved ones to pray for us, we can also ask these deceased saints – who are still members of our mystical family – to intercede with God on our behalf, according to their patronage. St. Jude is the patron saint for impossible causes, so you might ask him to pray for you when you feel as if you’re in an impossible situation. Or, you might ask for St. Dymphna’s intercession while you are praying for a loved one with mental or emotional illness. Notice we are not praying TO the saint as though they have power by their own accord, but rather asking them to pray on our behalf, appealing to the power of God. The options of heroic saints that are available to us, both as examples of holiness and intercessors for our needs, are endless and it would be both wise and prudent to learn as much about them as possible. They are true gifts to us.
Now that we’ve established the different types of saints and how they help us, let’s explore the process of how an individual becomes a canonized saint. This is a long process with many steps and details, so I will give a basic overview here. The process starts at the diocesan level. After a person dies, if it is believed by some that they lived an exceptionally virtuous life, a petition may be filed in which the local bishop is asked to open an investigation. Every aspect of this person’s life will be examined through interviews, writings by the individual and any other sources available. If the petition was filed due to a perceived martyrdom – dying for one’s faith – then every detail surrounding their death will be examined.
Once the investigation is over and the bishop agrees that the individual is a good candidate for sainthood, all of the documentation is sent to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints. First, the Congregation will study the diocesan investigation to determine if it agrees with the bishop before moving forward. If so, the documentation is then sent to the pope for his stamp of approval which confers the title “Venerable” to the person. This is the first title an individual receives on the path to being a canonized saint.
After a person is declared “Venerable,” the next step is for a miracle to be attributed to that individual. We know that God performs miracles through people from Acts 5:12 where we see the apostles giving signs and performing miracles so that others might believe. The apostles were humans, so this was done only by the power of God through them. Once it is believed a miracle has occurred – typically a physical healing – through the intercession of the person, a team of experts is compiled to investigate its authenticity. This is not a team of strictly religious people, rather it consists of scientific experts, lay people, and even sceptics in order to be unbiasedly declared an otherwise unexplainable occurrence. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the miracle must meet three criteria: “complete – meaning a total healing of the disease, it is not enough for the person to ‘just’ feel better; instantaneous – meaning the healing occurred all at once and not over the course of several days or months; and durable – meaning the person remains permanently free from the illness that afflicted them.” Once this miracle has been authenticated, the pope may confer the title of “Blessed.”
In order to receive full canonization and to receive the title of “Saint,” a second miracle must be performed and authenticated by the same process as the first miracle. Once a person is canonized, he or she may be honored and venerated as such by members of the Church. We discussed above how we do that by using a saint’s life as an example and asking him or her to pray for us as members of our mystical family.
It should be a goal for each of us to become a saint in heaven, even if not a canonized saint (though that’s a great goal too!). How can we look to these holy men and women to help us on our journey? When we need prayers for help or healing, we can and should turn to our living friends, but we can receive countless more prayers by asking our heavenly friends to intercede for us as well. They will be more than happy to do it! Is there a particular battle you are fighting right now where you can use a little extra help from a heavenly friend? Find out who the patron saint of that issue is and ask for help. Can you find a few new saints you don’t know much about yet? Learn more about them and how they led lives of heroic virtue in the context of their specific vocations. Most of all, let them inspire you on your own path to holiness.