Sainthood is among the less well understood Christian theological conceptions. Quite simply, it means one who has been saved: i.e., one who was granted admission into heaven upon his death. If when you die, God deems you admissible, you’re a saint. Period.
So why does the Church call only a few special persons Saints (note the capital)? Again, the matter is rather simple: their lives on Earth make it seem indubitable that upon their deaths they earned admission to eternal bliss. The specific criteria have changed a bit over the years – I recall a time when four confirmed miracles were required, whereas today two posthumous miracles will suffice – but its essentials are:
- A life dedicated to service to God;
- Confirmed miracles reliably attributable to the saint’s intercession.
The Church has adjudged several thousand persons to qualify for ecclesiastically recognized sainthood...and despite the rigor of the process, it could be wrong in every case.
GASP! Disagreeing with the Church? How can you say such a thing, Fran? (Nota Bene: For new readers, this isn’t the first time.) Quite simply, because the authoritative Judgment of a man’s soul is reserved to God. No mortal agency has the authority to “preapprove” anyone, no matter how he lived or died. Whether or not the Church recognizes Joe Blow as a saint, God remains free to disagree.
But if I may return to my original point: There are probably far more saints, in the strict sense of the word, than the few thousand the Church has certified. Billions have lived and died. Surely there were “unrecognized” saints among them. If even one percent made it through the Pearly Gates, heaven would already have millions of residents.
And today is their day. All of them.
There are a lot of misconceptions about Catholics’ attitude toward the saints. We don’t worship them; we venerate them as holders of a qualification we hope someday to possess. We believe they can intercede for us – i.e., add their prayers to ours – in temporal matters; that’s where the business about posthumous miracles comes in. But they’re not divine and have no powers of their own.
The highest and best known of the recognized saints, the Blessed Virgin Mary, is accorded an extra title as Queen of Heaven, owing to her willing acceptance of the extreme responsibility of becoming the mother of Christ and remaining with Him to the end of His mortal life. (The mystical visions of Anne Emmerich are relevant to this title.) However, while she might have special “influence” on her Son, she has no more power of her own than any other saint. The slurs about the Catholic Church being “the cult of Mary,” as if we worshiped her in a fashion appropriate solely to God, are utterly unfounded.
Whatever non-Catholics might think or say, we don’t worship any Being but God – and Mary is not an exception.
If you’re familiar with Catholic thought, you’ve probably heard of the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. Of these, hope is the one most relevant to any consideration of the saints and the proper attitude toward them.
Hope is easily grasped as the antithesis of despair. He who “hasn’t given up” on his prospects for salvation possesses the virtue of hope, though it may flicker or wane at especially trying times. The recognized saints are inspirations to hope. Baldly, if they can get in, then so can any man, for no saint was anything but a man among men. On All Saints’ Day, Catholics recognize and remember this along with our more general hope that the prayers of the saints might augment our own.
Among living men, when one is cited for some human fault, the target will sometimes reply “Well, I’m no saint.” And no matter who says that or why, it’s undeniably true, for to be a saint, as Val Kilmer’s “Simon Templar” tells Elisabeth Shue’s “Dr. Emma Russell” in The Saint, one must be “a very dead person.”
Which brings me to my major point: Anyone can get there. Jesus told the “rich young man” what the qualifications are:
And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. [Matthew 19:16-19]
So to one who says “Well, I’m no saint,” the appropriate rejoinder is always:
May God bless and keep you all.