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Summary Article: Saints from Encyclopedia of Global Religions

Virtually every religious tradition has the custom of venerating the spiritually adept, holy men and women whose memory and spirit live on within the community's sacred memory. In Buddhism, there are boddisattvas; in Hinduism, there are medieval sants, the poet-saints who have fostered religious movements of their own; and in Islam, there are Sufis and other holy men for whom shrines are built for their enduring veneration. In Christianity, these holy people are called saints; for this reason, this entry will focus on the Christian veneration of saintliness.

Christians around the world have prayed to saints, deceased humans who have been posthumously deemed holy by church authorities and lay persons alike, since the early days of Christianity. Saints function as intercessors and mediators who deliver the faithful's prayers and requests to God in heaven. They are seen as role models for humans on earth to look to and to emulate. Christians, especially Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, have forged intimate relationships with saints for centuries, turning to them in times of need and distress. Whether these saints are officially recognized by religious authorities does not always matter, as the faithful forge relationships with those saints declared holy by church hierarchies as well as those they unofficially deem to be saints. From the earliest cult of the saints in Western Christendom to more contemporary devotions to saints, believers have looked to saints as special mediators between their earthly selves and heaven. Since the days of early Christianity, saints have been thought to have extraordinary qualities and are beseeched by the faithful and are asked to help them in their lives on earth. Yet saints are also believed to be human and to have lived human lives not always free from sin. Saints have extraordinary qualities as well as human ones. Since the early days of Christianity, men and women have turned to saints for guidance and protection, and today, with increasing globalization, transnationalism, and all the challenges associated with these lived realities, women and men around the world are turning to saints for help.

The Institutionalization of Sainthood

The earliest saints were popularly declared as such; women and men unofficially canonized by Christi ans who took it upon themselves to venerate men and women they believed to embody heroism. Thus, the earliest devotions to saints were popular and lay run rather than institutionally directed. Always alert to an imbalance of lay-official church power and seeking to assert clerical authority, clerics moved to institutionalize the process of making a man or woman a saint. The institutionalization of sainthood began in 1170, when Pope Alexander III declared that it was the pope, not the people, who would control the process of canonization as well as the devotions to the saints. Thereafter, in the Roman Catholic Church, from the 12th century to the present, the path to sainthood includes a three-step process of discernment:

  • 1.Examination: This is the preliminary process, during which a commission examines the candidate's life on earth and determines if she or he is a worthy candidate.
  • 2.Beatification: If the candidate is shown to have one miracle attributed to her or him, the church beatifies the individual, in effect recognizing the saint in question as blessed.
  • 3.Canonization: If the candidate in question is shown to have one additional miracle attributed to her or him, the person is officially made a saint and recognized to reside in heaven.

The Catholic Church sees its saints as those who possess heroic virtue and who are special in the eyes of God. Both Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church hierarchies recognize saints as humans who are not exempt from sin but who have led overwhelmingly holy lives. The saint's lifetime of good deeds, heroic virtue, and special holiness distinguishes him or her from mere mortals. The process of institutionalizing devotions to saints continues to evolve. Since 1588, the Vatican has had a specially designated department for saint candidates—the Congregation for Causes of the Saints—which sorts through the documents that have been submitted. The Roman Catholic Church hierarchy's definition of who should be canonized as a saint has changed with the times, sometimes paralleling public opinion and at other times diverging from it.

In the earliest days of Christianity, saints were those who endured intense amounts of bodily suffering, of the self-inflicted or external variety. Some of these early saints were martyrs, and the bloodier the martyrdom the better. Take for instance St. Stephen, considered the first Christian martyr who was stoned to death, or Perpetua and Felicitas, two North African women who were gored by wild animals in the year 202 before being stabbed by soldiers in the town's amphitheater. Like Stephen, Perpetua and her slave Felicitas were known for enduring incredible amounts of torture, pain, and bodily anguish. Yet another famous early Christian martyr, Polycarp, was burned alive in 155. Early Christian martyrs’ bodies were bloodied, burned, stretched, racked, and torn. Their anguish and refusal to renounce their faith in the midst of incredible amounts of pain and agony is honored by Christians today, who see them as exemplars of faith. Other early Christian saints renounced their bodies and suffered, fasting to diminish the flesh for a higher, ascetic purpose. These men and women were able to transcend the evils of their flesh, as viewed by Christian theology, and served as models of discipline and piety. Their sufferings could be internalized by the devout, who honored the saints’ sufferings and saw them as idealized versions of themselves. And it was the saint's body—fragments of bones, hair, flesh—that captivated the faithful, who saw these remnants as markers of divinity. It was through sensory engagement—touching, smelling, and seeing the saints’ relics—that the early Christians felt a deep connection to God.

By the time we get to the 14th century, clerics and everyday Christians alike wanted their saints to perform miracles as evidence of special extratemporal powers and connectedness with the divine. Unlike the average believer, a saint possessed a special ability to carry believers’ requests and prayers to God, and this belief in a saint's intercessory powers resulted in intense devotionalism to saints. Private and publicized prayers to saints had an end in mind—that the saint would intercede on the believer's behalf and perform a special request for the individual, a family member, or other loved one. The concept of reciprocity flourished—that the devotee would make a promise of sacrifice to the saint if the saint granted the devotee's wish. The cult of patron saints flourished in medieval Catholicism; believers prayed to and petitioned saints they deemed especially efficacious.

Yet not all Christians have nurtured relationships with saints. Martin Luther and other Protestant Reformers of the 16th century did away with invocations and devotions to saints, which they regarded as detracting from devotion to Jesus Christ. Throughout medieval and modern church history, Protestants were adamantly opposed to the invocation and veneration of saints, reflecting their reformation goals of rooting out what they viewed as the man-made excesses of religion. Today, many Protestants are open to the idea of saints. Since the late 1980s and the rise of ecumenicism, many Protestant denominations have adopted a more open stance toward the veneration of saints, seeing them as role models and as visible signs of the Holy Spirit. Episcopalians, for example, honor saints and do not require miracles as does the Roman Catholic Church. Examples of saints named by the Episcopal Church in the United States and honored in their calendar include the Italian Catholic saint Catherine of Siena, the Underground Railroad pioneer Harriet Tubman, the civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Civil War nurse and social reformer Florence Nightingale. The Episcopal calendar includes a wide range of men and women who may or may not have performed miracles. The common denominator is that they led exemplary lives and are worthy of emulation. And even Lutherans, not known for their devotion to saints for historical reasons dating back to the Reformation, have their own patron saint. Every December, Swedish and American Lutherans in churches across the United States and Sweden merge Swedish folklore and fourth-century Sicilian devotions to Lucy, creating a Protestant veneration of a female saint known for her piety, suffering, and generosity.

Other Protestant Christians see themselves as saints on earth, as specially designated by God himself. Since the early 20th century Pentecostals, fundamentalist Protestants, have striven to live as saints on earth, in some ways akin to the 17th-century Puritans, who emphasized living lives of visible sainthood. Pentecostals who are saved are called saints, visible signs of the Holy Spirit and God's grace. Pentecostals, whether they are members of the Assemblies of God or the Church of God in Christ, see all believers as possessing divine virtue and have no formal process of canonization, in contrast to Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Pentecostal Christians see the process of sanctification—the process of becoming holy—as an intimate relationship between them and God. They do not believe in the theology that surrounds saints, preferring to believe that men and women can be saints on earth and live in a community of saints.

Pentecostalism is primarily a Third World phenomenon, and its emphasis on healing and renewal and deliverance from the sufferings of this world make it especially attractive to men and women gripped by poverty, the transition from a rural to an urban economy, and social problems exacerbated by swift changes and dislocations, especially in Zimbabwe and Nigeria. Pentecostal theology offers a chance for men and women, particularly those who are poor and oppressed, to be saints on earth and to live empowered, fulfilled lives. As saints on earth, Pentecostals are equipped with the theological tools to cope with the changes and disruptions of the 21st-century world and seize on the opportunity to find salvation in this life. Unlike official Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic saints, Pentecostal saints are not necessarily heroic or virtuous but are everyday men and women who have been anointed by the Holy Spirit in this life. Pentecostals around the world need no other authority than God to deem them saints.

Mormons, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, believe that they are saints on earth, linking themselves to New Testament tradition that followers of Christ were saints. Mormons call themselves latter-day saints to denote that they are living in the latter days of Christ's second coming. Like Pentecostals, Mormons refer to themselves as saints and embrace a theology of Christian empowerment in which men, women, and children on this earth are living saints.

The Orthodox Church, like the Roman Catholic Church, has a formal process of canonization that dates back to the ninth century and that is organized by the territorial synod. While the Roman Catholic Church's process of sainthood is handled by a special Vatican office, Orthodox Christians have a more localized process. Orthodox Christians acknowledge that their saints may not have always been perfect but that it was the striving toward perfection that matters most. In Orthodox Christianity, canonization does not make a person a saint; rather, it recognizes that a man or woman was a saint on this earth. Like Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians are given saint names at confirmation, thus signifying a relationship between the temporal and heavenly realms and their occupiers.

Unofficial, Popular Saints

Saints who have been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church or Orthodox Church are granted official legitimation, and devotions are institutionally supported and encouraged. Many countries, particularly those in Latin America, can boast their own national saint and host annual celebrations in honor of their patron saint. The Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's national saint, is celebrated on December 13 each year in Mexico and in Mexican American communities throughout the United States. Another national Virgin, the Virgin of El Cobre/Our Lady of Charity, is celebrated in Cuba and among the Cuban American diaspora in Miami, Florida, each September 18.

In addition to these larger national celebrations, more locally held devotions are celebrated in churches and backyard shrines throughout the world. While officially recognized saints can have strong devotions, not all canonized saints do: For example, while officially recognized saints such as Juan Diego and the Virgin of Guadalupe have strong followings in Mexico and on the U.S.-Mexico border and in places with large numbers of Mexican residents, other canonized saints such as Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, the founder of the conservative Roman Catholic group Opus Dei, have more limited followings. Time will tell if another recently designated Roman Catholic saint, Gianna Beretta Molla, who died in childbirth knowing that she had terminal cancer, will attract a large following. Others who are on the path to sainthood, such as Mother Theresa, have not yet been canonized but have a large following among Catholic and non-Catholic devotees who have unofficially deemed her a saint and who anticipate her canonization.

Other saints have been officially canonized by the church and unofficially by the people.

St. Thérèse de Lisieux, the 19th-century officially canonized French Carmelite nun, also happens to be one of the most popular saints in the world. Fondly called “The Little Flower” by the Roman Catholic Church as well as the devout, the 1997 to 2002 world tour of her remains was met enthusiastically by millions of devotees.

While the canonization of a saint most certainly helps increase devotions, it does not always serve as the final legitimator as there are hundreds, if not thousands, of unofficial saints—saints of the people, for the people, and by the people. These popularly proclaimed saints tend to flourish among men and women who are oppressed, marginalized, and experiencing the pains of social dislocations and upheaval around the world. These unofficial, syncretic saints live among the poor and in the homes of those whose lives are not marked by empowerment and privilege. Haitians, for example, have merged vodou lwa (“spirits”) with official Catholic saints to form syncretic saints that are deeply informed by two or more religious traditions. Ogou, the warrior vodou lwa, is merged with the Catholic Saint James to form a distinctive cultural deity that embodies cultural and religious identities and that reflects the social situatedness of its believers. The Vodou spirit Gede is especially important in immigrant Haitian communities as he is seen as a “survival artist,” according to Karen McCarthy Brown, one who can help them adjust to life in a new country. Gede, an immigrant himself, helps followers of Vodou maintain ties to Haiti and even farther back to Vodou's origins in Africa (Brown, 2001, p. 379).

Like practitioners of Vodou, who merge Catholic and Vodou cosmologies to form syncretic saints, practitioners of Santería and Candomblé, two syncretic religions that draw on African and Caribbean belief systems, merge Catholic belief in saints with indigenous spirits. In African Cuban Santería, orishas are merged with Catholic saints much like lwa are merged with Catholic saints in Haitian Vodou, and spirits are merged with Catholic saints in African Brazilian Candomblé or, as it is also called, Macumba.

Like other places in the world where we find social dislocation, poverty, and the stresses of urban living, the U.S.-Mexico border is home to active devotions to unofficial, popular saints such as Juan Soldado, Don Pedrito Jaramillo, and Jesus Malverde. These men do not meet the Catholic Church's requirements for holiness, but institutional legitimation does not matter to the faithful who have deemed these men saints. Soldado, convicted and killed by a Mexican firing squad for his alleged rape of a young girl, is revered by Tijuanenses and Mexicans along the border who believe that he was wrongly convicted and that he is a martyr who intercedes on their behalf. Men and women pin slips of papers and photographs, along with their hopes and dreams, inside the walls of Soldado's shrine, praying to him to intercede on their behalf. Soldado's lack of official Church canonization has done nothing to dampen popular devotion to this saint, and the Tijuana cemetery where he is buried is a pilgrimage destination for Mexicans.

Like Soldado, Jaramillo and Malverde are unofficial borderland saints. Jaramillo, a South Texas curandero, a healer, is considered a saint to those men and women living on the Mexico-Texas border. Up to his death in 1909, thousands of Mexicans and Anglo Americans sought his curative powers. For his part, Malverde, a Sinaloan Robin Hood character, is believed to have robbed rich hacienda owners to give the money to the poor. He is believed to have been killed, or martyred by the state, in 1909, and a shrine was built by devotees in his honor not long after his death.

Heavenly and Human Intercessors

Devotion to saints has been around for centuries. Whether the saint has been officially canonized by the church does not always matter as men and women have forged relationships with these human and divine intercessors since the beginning of Christianity. While popular and official devotions may indeed overlap, as they do for countless saints deemed holy by the Church and by the devout, the U.S.-Mexican borderlands saints show that this is not always the case.

See also

Anglicans, Candomblé, Christianity, Haiti, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Pentecostal Movements, Pilgrimage, Popular Religion, Roman Catholicism, Vatican Council, Second, Vodou

Further Readings
  • Brading, D. A. (2003). Mexican phoenix: Our Lady of Guadalupe. Image and tradition across five centuries. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Brown, K. M. (2001). Mama Lola: A Vodou priestess in Brooklyn. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Brown, P. (1981). The cult of the saints: Its rise and function in Latin Christianity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Bynum, C. W. (1987). Holy feast and holy fast: The religious significance of food to medieval women. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Cox, H. (1995). Fire from heaven: The rise of Pentecostal spirituality and the reshaping of religion in the twenty-first century. Cambridge, UK: DaCapo Press.
  • De La Torre, M. (2004). Santería: The beliefs and rituals of a growing religion in America. New York: William B. Eerdmans.
  • Hawley, J. S. (Ed.). (1987). Saints and virtues. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Maxwell, D. (2007). African gifts of the spirit: Pentecostalism and the rise of Zimbabwean transnational religious movement. Columbus: Ohio University Press.
  • Olmos, M. F.Paravisini-Gebert, L. (2003). Creole religions of the Caribbean: An introduction from Vodou and Santería to Obeah and Espiritismo. New York: New York University Press.
  • Price, P. L. Of bandits and saints: Jesus Malverde and the struggle for place in Sinaloa, Mexico. Cultural Geographies, 12, : , .
  • Tweed, T. A. (2002). Our Lady of the Exile: Diasporic religion at a Cuban Catholic shrine in Miami. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Vanderwood, P. (2004). Juan Soldado: Rapist, murderer, martyr, saint. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Nabhan-Warren, Kristy
    SAGE Publications, Inc.

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