Why does the Church have ‘saints’?

Most Catholics grew up seeing altars and candles before statues or images of saints at church, becoming accustomed to the use the word “saint” only when it came to very specific individuals.

And yet, when we read the Scriptures, we stumble across passages where Christians in general are referred to as “saints”: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus… to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ at Colossae” (Col 1:1-2).

We may then wonder whether the Church is correct in only giving certain Christians the title “saint.”

To understand the basis for this restricted use of the word saint, we must take a look at the doctrine of the “communion of saints.”

The Church teaches that “the communion of saints is the Church” (CCC 946-962).

“Saint” comes from the Latin “sanctus,” and refers to something or someone that has been “set apart”, that is “holy.”

The reason St. Paul calls Christians “saints” is that Christians have been “set apart” and made holy by the grace of baptism. They are not like the rest of the world.

But the doctrine of the communion of saints, which is mentioned in the Apostle’s Creed, is more than that. It is based on the teaching that all baptized faithful form one body in Christ (Rom 12:15; 1 Cor 12:12-27).

Because they form part of one Body, “the good of each is communicated to the others,” which makes the communion of goods throughout the body possible.

As the Catechism explains, this phrase — in Latin, “communio sanctorum” — has had two deeply related meanings since Early Christianity: communion in holy things (sancta) and communion among holy persons (sancti).

The first meaning of this phrase explains that the spiritual goods that are communicated include the faith received from the apostles, the diversity of charisms, the charity that is carried out, and the sacraments — especially the Eucharist, “because it is primarily the Eucharist that brings this communion about.”

The ‘saints’ in heaven, earth and purgatory

The second meaning of the phrase refers more specifically to the communion of the “sancti,” the “saints” or “holy persons.”

It must be noted that in Latin, there is no distinction between the words “saint” and “holy.”

Keeping this in mind, all holy persons are in communion for belonging to the same Body, even the ones who have already died.

For this reason, the communion of saints extends through time and encompasses three different states of the same Body, which is the Church: the Church Militant (on earth), the Church Penitent (in purgatory) and the Church Triumphant (in heaven).

These distinctions are deeply Biblical, and they help us see why the Church bestows on some of its members who have passed form this life the title “saint.”

Paul himself distinguishes between the “saints” who are still on earth and the ones who are in heaven, in God’s presence: “May you be strengthened with all power… giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light” (1:11-12).

These “saints in light” are those who have passed before us and that enjoy the light of God. According to Paul, these “saints in light” are the ones who possess the full “inheritance,” and the Christians on earth only “share” or “partake” in that inheritance.

In other words, only the “saints” in heaven possess the fullness of “sainthood” or “sanctity” which comes from Christ himself, because they are in full communion with God. What we see “in a mirror dimly,” they see “face to face” in the beatific vision (1 Cor 13:12).

For this reason, the Church upholds the saints in heaven with unique veneration. They are in God’s presence and are “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pe 1:4). They have “run the race” and have been crowned (2 Tim 4: 7-8).

Those of us still on earth form part of the Church Militant and continue to run the race as pilgrims.

Those who form part of the Church Penitent in purgatory (1 Cor 3:15; 2 Macc 12:43-45) are the ones who have run the race but have not reached the perfection needed to be in the presence of God, for “nothing unclean shall enter [heaven]” (Rev 21:27). For this reason, Christians are called to practice penance and mortification on earth, that they may be purified and enter heaven when they pass from this world.

Since we form part of the same Body, we are called to pray for these holy souls in purgatory, “that they may be loosed from their sins,” while they also intercede for us (CCC 958).

This is the first step in understanding why as Catholics we are not mistaken when we call certain people “saints.”

The Church does not pretend to have a list of all the saints in heaven. As far as we know, one of our deceased family members may be enjoying the beatific vision. Even then, we should pray for them, that they may be made perfect and enter heaven, for we won’t know for certain if they have, unless the Church confirms it through a rigorous process.

What we do know is that those who have run the race and have been victorious are not indifferent to the challenges we currently face. Rather, by forming part of the same Church, they are always attentive to our prayers and, through their powerful intercession, are eager to help us join them in heaven.

Acknowledgements: Catholic Encyclopedia, Catholic Answers

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With 50,000 people in attendance from all continents, Pope Francis declared John Henry Newman, Mother Giuseppina Vannini, Mother Mariam Thresia Mankidiyan, Sister Dulce Lopes Pontes, and Marguerite Bays Catholic saints at the beginning of a festive mass in St. Peter’s Square, Sunday Oct. 13.

Mother Mariam Thresia (1876-1926)

Mother Mariam Thresia (1876-1926) was an Indian mystic and founder of the Congregation of the Holy Family. Her prayer life was characterized by frequent ecstasies in which she would sometimes levitate above the ground. In 1909, Thresia received the stigmata, after which she also suffered from demonic attacks.

Mother Thresia cared for the poor, sick, and dying in Kerala, visiting those with leprosy and measles. She also preached to the poor and the rich alike the importance of happy, healthy families to uplift all of society.  In 1914 Thresia founded the Congregation of the Holy Family, which has grown to have 176 houses around the world with 1,500 professed sisters.

“Our main charisma is family apostolate. We have schools, hospitals and counseling centers etc. But our main focus is the family apostolate. Making the families like a Holy Family of Nazareth,” Sister Dr. Vinaya of the Congregation of the Holy Family said.

Pope Francis recognized the second miracle attributed Mother Thresia in February. A grandmother of a dying child had a relic of Mariam Thresia and asked the nurse — a sister belonging to the Congregation of the Holy Family — to place the relic on the child’s heart and pray. From that moment forward, the young boy began to breathe normally and was cured.

Marguerite Bays (1815-1879)

This 19th century Swiss laywoman and stigmatist dedicated her life to prayer and service to her parish community without marrying or entering a religious community. As a Third Order Franciscan, she lived a simple life as a dressmaker and carried out a lay apostolate as a catechist.

When Bays was diagnosed with advanced cancer in 1853, she prayed to the Virgin Mary to be able to suffer with Jesus rather than to be healed. However, on the day that Bl. Pius IX proclaimed the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, Sept. 8, 1854, she was miraculously healed. Pius made the proclamation on Marguerite’s 39th birthday.

“From that moment on, after Marguerite was healed of her illness in a completely inexplicable way, she proclaimed the Passion of the Lord, because every Friday she had these moments of suffering in which there was blood and the stigmata, the very pain of the Passion,” Father Carlo Calloni, the postulator for Bays’ canonization cause, told EWTN’s Vaticano.

Blessed Marguerite died on the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 1879 at the age of 63. After her death the Vatican approved a miracle attributed to her intercession in which a two-year-old child was completely healed after being run over by an 1,800-pound tractor wheel. She was beatified by St. John Paul II in 1995.

Mother Giuseppina Vannini (1859-1911)

Giuseppina Vannini is a 19th century religious sister from Rome known for founding the congregation of the Daughters of St. Camillus dedicated to serving the sick and suffering. She is the first Roman woman to be canonized in more than 400 years, according to ACI Stampa.

Vannini spent much of her childhood in an orphanage near St. Peter’s Square after losing her father when she was four, and her mother when she was seven. She grew up among the Daughters of Charity sisters, who ran the orphanage. On the day of her first communion, young Giuseppina felt that she was called to a religious vocation.

This desire was not realized until 1892 when she was 33 because she was rejected by the Daughters of Charity after her novitiate due to her poor health.

Despite her own health problems, Vannini went on to find the Daughters of St. Camillus, whose charism is to serve the sick, even at the risk of their own lives. However, she did not live to see the congregation fully recognized by the Vatican. She died at the age of 51 in 1911.

Today the Daughters of St. Camillus have grown to 800 sisters in 22 countries. The Giuseppina Vannini Hospital in Rome is named in her honor.

Sister Dulce Lopes (1914-1992)

This Brazilian sister was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize. Born as Maria Rita Lopes in 1914 in Salvador de Bahia, Lopes began inviting the elderly and those in need into her home at the age of 16. Two years later she joined the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God.

In 1959, she founded the Charitable Works Foundation of Sister Dulce, which grew into largest charitable organization in Brazil providing healthcare, welfare, and education services. Today the foundation includes Roma teaching hospital in Bahia and the Santo Antonio Educational Center which provides free education to 800 children living in extreme poverty.

Sister Dulce died in 1992 after 30 years of respiratory illness. After her body was found to be incorrupt, Sister Dulce was beatified in 2011 and was selected as one of the patrons of World Youth Day in Krakow as a model of charity.

She is now the first Brazilian-born female saint.

John Henry Newman (1801-1890)

St. John Henry Newman is the most famous English theologian in modern times. Born the son of a London banker, he was baptized in the Anglican church, began studies in Oxford at the age of 16, and was ordained an Anglican priest.

After joining the Oxford Movement, he sought to recover Catholic aspects within the Church of England. However, in 1845, putting aside his academic career, he converted to Catholicism and subsequently spent the last 40 years of his life as a parish priest in Birmingham. There, he cared for the poor and wrote works that have had a major impact on Catholic theology, including in the Second Vatican Council. Leo XIII made him a cardinal, but he never became a bishop.

In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI beatified Newman in London. Benedict noted Newman’s emphasis on the vital place of revealed religion in civilized society, but also praised his pastoral zeal for the sick, the poor, the bereaved, and those in prison. Saint John Henry Newman’s liturgical feast is October 9.

John Henry Newman has been called the “absent Father of Vatican II” because his writings on conscience, religious liberty, Scripture, the vocation of lay people, the relation of Church and State, and other topics were extremely influential in the shaping of the Council’s documents. Although Newman was not always understood or appreciated, he steadfastly preached the Good News by word and example.

Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.

Featured image by Daniel Ibanez/CNA