1. What is a saint?
The Catholic Church is unsure of the exact number of saints in its tradition. One source records at least 7,000 – and the number is increasing.
Saints hold a special position in more than one Christian tradition. In the Catholic Church, it’s claimed they pass on intercessory prayers to God, solve earthly and heavenly quandaries and reduce the time souls spend in purgatory. But how is a potential saint's holiness assessed today?
Discover more about saints and why they are so important in the Catholic tradition.
2. The Road to sainthood
The word ‘saint’, comes from the Greek word for ‘set apart’ or ‘holy,’ and was originally applied to all Christians. But as Christianity developed, the word ‘saint’ was given to those who were seen as exceptional - Christians who had died for their faith or performed miraculous acts. As the Christian Church developed, the path to sainthood became a complex process and one of many trials.
Step 1: Virtuous in death
The key principle of saintliness is the ability to intervene in the lives of the faithful after death. So the first requirement is that the candidate is dead, traditionally for at least five years, before the case for their canonisation is opened. But while St. Bede had to wait 1,164 years after his death for canonisation, the waiting period was much shorter for Mother Teresa, whose case was opened just two years after her death and Pope John Paul II, whose journey to sainthood began the same year he died.
The cause of would-be saints requires the backing of a member of their diocese; a nun or priest for example, who must be able to vouch for the holiness of the candidate, and gather written testimonies of their good works. These testimonies are then examined by the diocese’s bishop, who decides whether to pass a case on to the Vatican. If the Vatican agrees the candidate was virtuous, it votes that the investigation continues and declares the candidate “venerable”. This first step is complex and can take many years in itself.
Step 2: A miracle making saint
Next, the Vatican requires testimonies from believers that the candidate performed two miracles after their death. This is considered proof that the candidate has a close relationship with God, whose holiness reflects on them in heaven. If the first miracle is considered legitimate by the Pope, the candidate is blessed or “beatified”. If a second miracle is validated, the Pope declares the candidate a saint, and “canonises” them. The need for a second miracle was waived, however, in the case of Pope John XXIII who was elevated to sainthood in 2014 by Pope Francis after only one miracle.
Verifying a miracle - The Devil's Advocate
The first “Devil's Advocate”, was appointed in the 16th century by the Vatican. His job was to rigorously challenge the supporting evidence put forward for all potential new saints. This was in part a reaction to criticism from Protestant Reformers, who believed, among other things that only Jesus was able to mediate between God and the living. Although this position has now been abolished, the Church still solicits opposing opinions. As part of Mother Teresa’s road to canonisation, the Vatican brought in atheist columnist Christopher Hitchens to testify against her.
When verifying a saint, the Catholic Church also requires proof that reported miracles do not have scientific explanations. It ensures rigorous scientific and medical investigation has been employed by “independent witnesses”.
3. INTERACTIVE: Martyrs and miracle makers
Click on the images to find out why these people became important saints
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Images: Bridgeman, Akg-images and Getty
4. What else can a saint do?
Some saints are said to have connections to particular people or things. Click on the options below to find out more.