What is a saint?

A ‘saint’ is someone who has been canonised - a holy man or woman who has died may be canonised if it is deemed they lived a life of heroic virtue.

In Catholic terms, a ‘saint’ is someone who has been canonised. A holy man or woman who has died may be canonised if it is deemed they have lived a life of heroic virtue and gone through a process of thorough examination. Please see the question ‘What is Holiness and Beatification?’ for more details on this process.

By baptism, a ‘seed’ of holiness is placed into the soul of a baby or an adult. A saint is simply someone in whom that seed has come to full growth. That initial seed of holiness is God’s gift, and can’t be earned by any human endeavour. But God does wish us to co-operate with him, so that the seed will eventually flower and ‘bring forth much fruit’ (Jn. 15:5).

It would be a great mistake to suppose that all the saints are alike, as if they were mass-produced statues! For one thing, a person can become a saint in any walk of life, provided that it doesn’t involve sin (a rejection of God and goodness). A lawyer can become a saint – for example St Thomas More. A tramp can become a saint – for example, St Benedict Joseph Labre. A scientist can become a saint – for example St Albert the Great. A housewife can become a saint – for example, St Margaret Clitherow.

More than this, the saints are different in the very ‘style’ of their sanctity. It’s true that they all have all the virtues, since no one can have any true virtue to a high degree without having all the rest as well. But because the saints, like all of us, have varying temperaments and natural gifts, their holiness takes on a pattern unique to each one of them, just as a person’s fingerprints are unique to him. So some saints shine out by their pity for the poor and suffering, such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, or St Damien of Molokai, who spent his life tending lepers on a remote island. Others may be outstanding for their insight into spiritual truths, such as St Thomas Aquinas, who is called ‘the Angelic Doctor’ because he seemed to think more clearly than a mere man could! Others again may impress us most by their zeal for God’s honour, like St Catherine of Siena, who humbly but firmly told the Pope that God wanted him to go back to Rome where he belonged and that he was not to be afraid of the consequences.

Many saints have worked miracles during their lives, for example raising the dead or multiplying food and drink for the needy. This shouldn’t surprise us, if we are believers in Christ, since he predicted to his disciples, ‘Amen, Amen, I say to you, he that believes in me, the works that I do, he also shall do; and greater than these shall he do, because I go to the Father’ (Jn. 14:12-3). However, it’s not part of the definition of a saint that he should have worked miracles during his life; rather, a saint is someone who has ‘heroic charity’, that is, an immense love for God, and for all that God wills.

Some saints start early, like St Thérèse of Lisieux, who as a little girl used to spend her Bank Holidays hiding in a curtain and thinking of God. Others leave it rather late, like St Ignatius of Loyola, who only started thinking of God when he had collided with a cannon ball. And others leave it very late indeed, like the ‘Good Thief’ on his cross (Lk. 23:39). But all have it in common that by the time they died, they had no other ambition, but to do God’s will, whatever it might be.

Here is a prayer of St Paul, asking that we may become saints:-

May you be able to comprehend with all the saints, what is the breadth and the length and the height and depth; may you also know the charity of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled unto all the fullness of God… Now to him who is able to do all things more abundantly than we can desire or understand, according to the power that works in us, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus unto all generations, world without end. Amen.’ (Eph. 3:18-21)

To read

The Catholic Truth Society produces many small booklets on the lives of the saints, look on the Catholic Truth Society website.

To do

Find out about a particular saint that inspires you and try to copy his or her lifestyle. After all, he or she copied Christ.

Visit places where saints lived; e.g. St Bede in Jarrow, Northumberland, John Henry Newman founded the Oratory in Birmingham, and also lived at Maryvale House in the North of the city. There is a comprehensive list at the Britannia.com website.

This article was written in 2010 by a member of the catechetical team at the Maryvale Institute.