Monday, July 8, 2013

Who is a saint?

St. Peter's Basilica

The declaration by the Vatican that Popes John XXIII and John-Paul II would very soon both become saints was not entirely a surprise. At the funeral of John-Paul II in 2005, some mourners called out, "Santo subito!", which translates roughly as "Sainthood now!"

The Vatican has approved the the last miracle necessary to confirm John Paul II’s sainthood. All that is still needed is the signature of Pope Francis. Both miracles must be “instantaneous, permanent, and with no scientific explanation.”

Unfortunately, only one miracle has thus far been attributed to John XXIII. But that did not deter Francis who would like both men to be declared saints at the same time, probably later this year.

The speedy process for John-Paul II, who represented the conservative wing of the Roman Catholic Church, would be balanced by John XXIII's recognition at the same time. Francis feels especially close to John XXIII, who spearheaded Vatican II and introduced many reforms.

Pope John-Paul II

This declaration has brought this question to the forefront again:  "Who is a saint?" Do these popes deserve to be called saints more than other believers? Is every believer a saint, or does the word mean someone who is special in some way?

In the New Testament, saint did not refer to deceased people who have been granted sainthood, but to living   people, to entire congregations. The Apostle Paul addresses many of his letters to the "saints" in . . .

The English word saint is a translation of the Greek ἅγιος (hagios), derived from the verb ἁγιάζω (hagiazo), which means "to set apart", "to sanctify" or "to make holy." Saint describes every believer who is in the process of being made holy by God. Every Christian, whether in heaven or on earth, is therefore a saint.

In the Orthodox and Catholic churches, all Christian who are in heaven are saints, but some are worthy of greater honor, and are officially recognized as such. This is process is called canonization.

The Catholic church teaches that it does not make or create saints, but rather, recognizes or canonizes them. They are therefore believed to be in heaven.  They are venerated. Although, properly speaking, they are not worshiped, they can be prayed to, since they are in heaven, where they can intercede for those who are still on earth.

Orthodox churches consider everyone who is in heaven a saint, whether they are recognized officially as such or not. As in the Catholic church, the Church does not make a saint, the person already was a saint, and the Church merely recognizes it. God reveals his saints through answered prayers and miracles.

Protestant churches regard anyone who is a Christian as a saint. But some Protestants specify that they must be "born-again" Christians. With the exception of some Anglicans, most Protestants reject praying to saints.

Many religions other than Christianity also have saints, although they often use other terms that may have a different meaning. Nevertheless, these terms are often translated into English as saints.

Many ideas of sainthood are specific to certain individuals who led exemplary lives, possessed miraculous powers, and had a transforming influence on others. Such saints are few and far between. They are rare.

But to call all Christians saints democratizes sainthood so much that it has little meaning at the everyday level. God may consider all of them as his saints, but many of us might question that description, certainly of some people we know. 

I know that I am not a saint in the Catholic sense. My wife and children remind me of that regularly. In fact, very few of us would qualify in that sense. I wonder how some of the saints throughout history may have been like to live with. Too bad we cannot ask the Apostle Peter's wife. But we already know from the Bible that he had many weaknesses. We all do, yet some of us are truly saints.

Most of us would call Mother Theresa a saint for her work in the slums of Kolkata, yet I doubt that anyone would ever label Josef Stalin a saint, even though he was a seminarian in his youth.

Christians do not have a monopoly on sainthood. There are numerous representatives of every religions whom the whole world would call saints. Their exemplary lives are truly models for everyone. One does not have to be a Christian to be considered a saint.

Who is a saint? There are many people today who are saints. There are countless fathers and mothers who slave away everyday so that their children may be fed and clothed, receive an education, and grow up to become good parents in turn. They will never be canonized, but they are as truly saints as any recognized saint in any religion.

John XXIII and John-Paul II may have been excellent popes, who provided great spiritual  leadership for the Catholic church, but are they more deserving to be called saints that these fathers and mothers were? The latter shall always remain anonymous, but that does not diminish their sainthood in any way.

In his papacy, John-Paul wanted to see more married couples, single people and non-Europeans recognized as saints. He canonized hundreds of lay people. But he still operated within the stringent rules laid down by the Catholic church, including the emphasis on miracles.

In our skeptical, secularized age, miracles are questioned anyway. So, why add a legalistic requirement which is hard, if not impossible, to prove. What these fathers and mothers have done is nothing short of miraculous. Yet, if they were asked, they would respond that they were only doing their duty as parents.

Who is a saint? You decide! Please nominate someone whom you think deserves to be called a saint. It may be your mom. It may be anyone. Disregard the rule of two miracles, as Pope Francis has done in the case of John XXIII, who so far has only one to his credit. So you can too. Send me your nominations, and I may even publish some of them.


  1. This post is timely. This morning I met a group of about 12 retired or semi-retired men in the local coffee shop. They meet there every Wednesday morning and I join when I can.
    I greeted them with: "Good morning, Saints!"
    Some laughed and a couple confessed that they certainly weren't 'saints'.
    I said that saints are forgiven sinners, and that we don't need to die and hang out for a few hundred years before being declared a saint.
    That's our Reformed theology.

    The Christian Reformed Church in North America, according to its newest yearbook, has 248,258 saints ... and counting.

  2. Hmmm, good post. I have a problem with this, because I know that they made Henry the VIII's one time chancellor Thomas More a 'saint', because he stayed true to the church and refused to bend to the old lecher's divorce! But More was very much a man of his time and had people burned at the stake, which he personally attended to, for heresy. Not exactly the actions of a saint are they? The Catholic church seems to want to make saints all over the place for some reason but to me only God knows who the saints are; leave it to Him.

    It's also like knighthoods here in the UK; Francis Drake goes to the Spanish Main, steals a load of gold and silver and gets made a knight. Today some rich guy donates money to the government in power, and gets a knighthood. It's just irrelevant and people patting each other on the back, the old boy's club. Means nothing to most people.