Saints, Faith, and History FAQ

Image of questions and prayer
Images from jcomp on Freepik and vectorjuice on Freepik

1. What is a “saint”?

“Saint” simply means “holy” (from the Latin sanctus). You could think of saints simply as each and every person you know who has been made better by knowing God. Or you could think of saints as heroes in heaven who have defied death through God’s power and now live forever to miraculously aid us still on earth. The extraordinary thing about the traditional Christian faith is that these two things are not that far apart—only time, God’s grace, and the minor matter of passing through death separate the two.

In the Catholic church, the title of saint is usually reserved for those Christians currently in heaven whose earthly lives can inspire us to love and follow God better.

2. How does someone become a saint?

A person becomes a saint by wanting to be better and loving God. You don’t have to be perfect (no saint was). You don’t have to have a perfect past (some saints only turned to God at the last moment of their lives, like Dismas the guilty thief in Luke 23:40-43). You just need to pray for it, fast, love your neighbor, and be willing to put aside everything that separates you from enjoying happiness with God now and in the next life. It’s really quite simple. I just really wish that simple meant easy.

3. No, I meant how does someone get “canonized” (officially become a saint)?

The process for being recognized as a saint (called “canonization“) has changed over the centuries. The basic requirements are that a person needs to be in heaven and the Church needs to decide that something about their life or death has meaning for their brothers and sisters still on earth. For the first thousand years or so, the local community would tell a potential saint’s story and ask for his or her help. If the tradition stuck, that person was a saint.

Then the popes created a centralized process to thoroughly investigate a person, basically putting them on “trial” and making their supporters prove the person’s holiness and continuing intercession. The original “Devil’s Advocate” was the church lawyer given the task of finding any argument for why a person should not be held up as a saint. If a person’s story couldn’t withstand that probing, the Church would avoid future embarrassment by not recognizing their sainthood.

Currently the Catholic church follows a deliberate process designed to allow years of reflection:

  • Step 1. Becoming a “Servant of God”: At least five years after a person’s death, supporters of canonization petition a bishop to open a “cause” and present preliminary evidence of holiness
  • Step 2. Becoming “Venerable”: A special commission of historians or other experts then collects evidence and interviews people (if a Servant of God lived recently). If the evidence supports it, the commission asks the Vatican to declare that this person lived a life of “heroic virtue”.
  • Step 3. Becoming “Blessed” and then a “Saint”: The final step is that God needs to confirm a person’s holiness and dwelling in heaven. That means waiting for miracles. A panel of doctors or other experts need to confirm that a healing or something similar happened after a person asked for the potential saint’s intercession and that this healing has no scientific explanation. After one miracle, the Venerable Servant of God is declared Blessed; after a second, the Blessed is declared a Saint.
  • Martyrs and Other Special Cases: Martyrs only need one miracle to become saints. At the end of step 2, they are declared Blessed rather than just Venerable. The pope can make exceptions to the normal rules in other cases too.

4. Why do Catholics pray to the saints and Mary?

Jesus told us to pray together. The central prayer of Christianity begins, “Our Father,” not, “My Father.” James 5:16 tells us to pray for one another since the prayer of a righteous person is powerful. So naturally Catholics go to holy people and ask them for their prayers. For Catholics (and other denominations with roots in early Christianity like the Orthodox), the fact that a holy person happens to be dead is no reason not to ask them for prayers. Indeed, them being in heaven with God and seeing Him face to face is a very good reason to ask them first for their prayers. The miracles that have been closely investigated and documented during the canonization process provide good evidence that God approves.

Why then do some people, especially in the newer Protestant denominations, critique praying to saints and Mary? Much of their fear is that “praying” to someone means worshipping them. God alone is worthy of worship. Prayer is different from worship though. The use of the word “pray” to just mean “ask” isn’t common in English anymore, though occasionally you will encounter a phrase like “pray tell” in a movie or book that shows the older meaning. The main Catholic prayer to Mary is explicitly a prayer for prayers: the Hail Mary simply paraphrases Luke 1:28 and then asks, “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death.”

Mary and the saints have no power in themselves. God simply works through them, as He also works through people still here on earth. By recognizing His extraordinary work in the saints, we can also recognize better the little nudges and graces that He works in our lives as well.

5. Are the stories about saints on this website true?

Some stories here definitely happened, some almost certainly did not, and some we don’t know. The stories of the early saints especially may not have been written down until long after their deaths. The posts on this website will say if we can tell for certain that a story isn’t historical.

Stories that are not historical may still tell truths. Christians chose to keep telling those stories for a reason. That is why I include them.

Take the following story from the time of the early martyrs. A Roman leader supposedly demanded St. Lawrence turn over all the treasures of the Church as a bribe to avoid arrest; St. Lawrence responded by presenting the cripples, widows, orphans, and foreign immigrants that the Roman church sheltered. “These are her treasures,” he said—and, in response, the official tortured him to death. Did that dramatic incident really happen? I don’t know. I do know that something inspired many Romans to leave their old faith in pagan gods and join a persecuted Church despite the threat of death. This story that those Romans chose to pass on is their testimony to their choice and their faith. It forces us to think about our treasures. It is a story worth telling.

6. Can you really trust wild stories with miracles?

We live in a surprising world if we only look around. There are two things about history and the saints that I firmly maintain against the dreary naysayers who wish to wipe all color from history.

First, people can be extraordinary. Dismissing a story because it is unlikely an average person could do so much is irrational. By definition, not everyone leads an average life. Take, for example, a Swedish girl with no particular scientific expertise who at the age of 15 becomes an international celebrity protestor against climate change and travels the world meeting heads of state. It is an extraordinarily unlikely story, but Greta Thunberg is quite real. And so are saints who broke the mould and beat the odds.

Second, if an all-powerful and loving God exists, then miracles are logical. He should be using that power in the world, and there is no reason He needs to be bound by laws that He created. Indeed, if you ask most physicists, the particular physical laws governing our universe generally are not necessary; other universes could (and may) easily have different laws. God, in traditional doctrine, is beyond our universe and our scientific methods for studying this physical universe. Healing and other events with no current scientific explanation have been well documented, in part during the process of canonizing saints. The lack of a scientific explanation now does not necessarily mean there may not be one in the future, but it does open the rational possibility that what believers describe as miracles are in fact dramatic interventions by God in our world.

Ready to read about their stories? Click here.