“Great and marvelous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints” (Rev. 15:3)
All Christians are saints whether they are still here on earth or already in the glory of heaven. Also included in the term are those who are still in purgatory. Communion exists among all saints – on earth, in heaven as well as those purified in purgatory. We call this consoling truth of our faith “the Communion of Saints.”
The meaning of the terms for “saint” in Hebrew (qedoshin), Greek (hagioi) and Latin (sanctus) is “holy one.” Thus, a “saint” is basically someone who is in some way holy, sanctified, or consecrated.
In the New Testament, the word “saint” is indiscriminately applied to Christians, without reference to their personal holiness as individuals; rather, due to their membership in the holy People of God.
Those who are already dead are still called “saints.” In Matthew 27: 52-3, it is reported: “The tombs of were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they went out into the holy city and appeared to many.” We know that “sleep” is a euphemism for death (Jn. 11:11-13). Thus, the word “saint” is ascribed even to those who are dead.
But are the “dead” saints really dead? Those who say they are will be rebuked by our Lord for their great error. “Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the book of Moses, in the account of the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!” (Mk. 12:26-27).
The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are saints of the Old Testament dispensation. The Lord Jesus asserted that they are not dead as God is not the God of the dead but of the living. The Lord God is in the assembly of the saints (Ps. 89:7). He is truly the God of the saints: “I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob (Exo. 3:6; 16).
The glory of the saints
The Lord Jesus will be “glorified in His saints” (2 Thes. 1:10). The saints are glorious because the Lord God Himself bestowed on them “grace and glory” (Ps. 84:1). The dignity of the saints stems from how God so honored them. In His munificence, God has deigned to involve His saints in His wondrous works. The saints are those who “obtained the Kingdom” (Dan. 7:22). God will judge us for the way we treat them. “Rejoice over her, O heaven! Rejoice, saints and apostles and prophets! God has judged her for the way she treated you” (Rev. 18:20, NIV). The Lord Jesus Christ, the returning Victor and King, will come with His saints to judge the world (1 Thes. 3:13). In turn, the saints themselves are given the authority to judge the world, even angels (1 Cor. 6:2-3).
The Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints are members of the Body of Christ and part of the Communion of Saints. When they are honored, we rejoice because 2 Corinthians 12:26 states that when “one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.”
Honoring the saints
The Catholic Church honors the saints because they honor God and God honors them in return. God declared in 1 Samuel 2:30, “for them that honor me I will honor.” Since God honors the saints, so should we because we are but “imitators of God” (Eph. 5:2, NIV). It is rather clear that to honor the saints is to glorify God who made them. St. Paul emphasized this point by saying “they glorified God in me” (Gal. 1:24).
Canonization of Saints
To “canonize” simply means to “list.” Canonization is defined as the “Church’s solemn and final declaration that one of its dead and formerly beatified members belongs among the saints in heaven and as such is to be publicly invoked and venerated” [Gerald O’Collins, SJ and Edward Farrugia, SJ, A Concise Dictionary of Theology (Quezon City: Claretian Publications, 2001) p. 32].
In canonizing or listing down its saints, the Catholic Church took its cue from the Bible itself. For instance, the patriarchs of ancient Israel are among those listed as the saints of God. Chapter 11 of the Letter to the Hebrews in effect “canonizes” or lists certain holy men and women of God in the Old Testament. The Book of Ecclesiasticus, chapters 44 to 50, eulogizes the great heroes and servants of the OT People of God. The Catholic Church, the NT People of God, recognizes them as saints in the old dispensation and invokes them as such.
So, too, in the New Testament, Our Lord Jesus Christ honors certain people, in effect “canonizing” them. For instance, He told Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona” (Mt. 16:17). He also “canonized” His precursor by declaring that “amongst those that are born of women, there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist” (Lk. 7:28, DRV). Our Lord Himself “canonized” the memory of the woman who anointed Him with costly perfume, thus: “Verily, I say unto you, wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told as a memorial of her” (Mt. 26:13; Mk. 4:9).
The Catholic Church likewise venerates the martyrs because they are the heroes of the Faith. Psalm 116:15 says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” We commemorate the death anniversary of a saint or martyrs (who are the heroes of our Faith) because it is their birthday in heaven. This finds full support in Scripture: “A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one’s birth” (Ecc. 7:1).
Imitation of Saints
As Catholics, we show our love and veneration of the saints and martyrs chiefly by imitating their virtues. The lives of the saints are nothing but the exegesis of the Gospel – the Good News of Christ as lived reality.
The Letter to the Hebrews explains –
“God would not be so unjust as to forget all you have done, the love that you have for his name or the services you have done, and are still doing, for the holy people of God. Our desire is that every one of you should go on showing the same enthusiasm till the ultimate fulfillment of your hope, never growing careless, but taking as your model those who by their faith and perseverance are heirs of the promises” (NJB).
The prophets of the Old Testament are regarded by the Catholic Church as saints and venerate them as such. They are being held up by the Church for our example and remembrance as St. James instructs us –
“For your example, brothers, in patiently putting up with persecution, take the prophets who spoke in the Lord’s name; remember it is those who had perseverance that we say are the blessed ones” (James 5:10-11, NJB).
The apostles of the New Testament are our principal models in following Christ the Lord. For example, St. Paul the Apostle presents himself as an example to the flock of Christ: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1, NIV).
Thus, the holy Catholic Church has patron saints who are proposed to the faithful for their veneration and emulation. The saints are those who “incarnated” Christ (who lived the life of Christ) in their respective historical and personal circumstances. Hence, the faithful may imitate them as they imitated Christ during their lifetime (cf. 1 Cor. 11:1).
“And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light” (Col. 1:10-12, NIV).