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SAINT, n. A dead sinner revised and edited.
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)
Saint requires an information source beyond even Google!
Penn & Teller: Bullshit![1]

A saint is Christian term literally meaning "sacred person", though how this is applied depends on the theological context.


If the Catholic church believes that saints are pipelines to God who can provide special cures, how come prayer to saints hasn’t restored lost eyes or amputated limbs? Why is it only diseases known to spontaneously regress that the incipient (or established) saints can “cure”? Isn’t that a remarkable coincidence?
Jerry Coyne[2]

The term is most closely associated with the Roman Catholic Church, and they use it to refer to people who are so pure and holy that they are blessed by God (although they are actually declared as saints or otherwise by the Vatican's lengthy bureaucratic canonization process). Saints are "venerated" by Catholics, and sometimes prayed to; whether this means that Catholics "worship" saints is open to interpretation

The Catholic canon of saints includes several thousand names. The earliest are figures associated with the life of Jesus, such as the Virgin Mary, the Apostles, John the Baptist, and Joseph of Arimathea. Old Testament figures such as Abraham and Moses are regarded as prophets rather than saints. Many other saints date from the early days of the Church, when Christians were persecuted or killed. Getting martyred was sainthood pay-dirt. Many more saints date from the middle ages, when the concept was at its most popular, with every major town having its own local saint, and each trade having its patron saint.

Some saints are believed to have had miraculous powers such as healing abilities, or to have exhibited visible signs of God's grace, such as the stigmata. Others are legendary figures attributed with mythical deeds such as killing dragons or banishing snakes. Relics of saints were believed to be sacred, and sites associated with notable saints became major pilgrimage destinations.

Saints are also thought to intercede with God on the behalf of people on earth, and so praying to a saint, instead of directly to God, is accepted within Catholic theology. Medieval Catholicism was almost polytheistic in this respect, with the pantheon of saints somewhat resembling the household gods of Ancient Rome. This was one of the many aspects of Catholic practice which early Protestant reformers objected to, believing prayer to anyone other than God himself as a heretical act of blasphemy or idolatry.

Paradoxically, one of the requirements for becoming a saint is to have a miracle ascribed to you. Roman Catholics are not consistently Scientifically rigorous before declaring a miracle. Some are cases where natural explanations of supposed miracles are easily possible but were disregarded. Others involve, 'The investigator can't easily explain this therefore Goddidit'.[2] For miracles to work, prayers have to be directed at someone who has not yet been considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church; which rather raises the question of why you are praying to them in the first place, instead of going through one of the recognised channels.

In 2015, it was revealed that the cost of consideration for sainthood was about €50,000, and the cost for sainthood was in the range of €500,000 to €750,000.[3] Funds from the beatification process are supposed to go to the Fund for the Causes of the Poor, but almost nothing went into the fund during Pope John Paul II's large number of beatifications (1,338 blesseds in 147 rites and 482 saints in 51 celebrations).[3]

Because Catholics like a good bureaucracy, there are four named stages on the ladder to sainthood.[4]

  1. Being named a "Servant of God", which is not strictly a canonical title but indicates you're under consideration.
  2. Veneration, when you get the title "Venerable".
  3. Beatification, to be "Blessed".
  4. Canonization, to "Saint".


Protestant churches differ in their interpretations of sainthood. The Anglican or Episcopal Church essentially retains the Catholic concept of saints, although Protestants don't pray to the saints themselves, and have a similar, though rather shorter, list of recognised saints. King Charles I (the headless one) is said to be the only saint canonised by the Church of England, with the Holy Day of "Charles, King and Martyr" on January 30, the anniversary of his beheading; he is the only post-Reformation monarch credited with any healing miracles after his death, and admirers suggest that "England had enjoyed special providential favours under his personal rule" (presumably these favours didn't include the English Civil War).[5][6] The decision must have been largely political, and he doesn't seem to be widely prayed to these days, although there is an annual Mass held for him at Banqueting House, Westminster, one of his former residences.[7][8]

Many other Protestant denominations, following the Puritan tradition, reject this concept of a select list of the spiritual elite, believing instead in the "priesthood of all believers" and in salvation through faith alone. In this context, the word "saints" is sometimes used by Protestants, and other emerging sects, to mean all those who are considered "saved" — i.e. all right-thinking God-fearing Christians who will be carried off to glory in the Rapture. This is the meaning intended, for example, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and in the song, "When the Saints Go Marching In".

Non-Christian religions[edit]

Even though it is properly a strictly Christian term, it is sometimes used by English-speakers to describe entities in other religions. For example, in Mahayana Buddhism, the term "boddhisattva" is also often translated as "saint." However, the difference in that a boddhisattva is an enlightened soul who delays nirvana to come back and help others reach enlightenment. While they may be able to cause miracles, they are also (presumably) on Earth, rather than in Heaven.

Another term that sometimes gets translated as "saint" is loa, a vodun term for a spirit or minor deity that has control over some aspect of the world, much like a saint. However, the loa do not universally embrace the virtues the way saints are supposed to.

See also[edit]


  1. Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, episode 3.05, Holier Than Thou
  2. 2.0 2.1 NPR touts Mother Teresa’s “miracles”
  3. 3.0 3.1 Bugged Priests and Sainthood For Sale: Missing multimillions, secretly recorded priests, and possible threats to Pope Francis’s life—new allegations deepen the Catholic Church's VatiLeaks scandal by Barbie Latza Nadeau (11.03.15 10:45 PM ET) The Daily Beast.
  4. See the Wikipedia article on Servant of God.
  5. The Calendar, Church of England website
  6. Short Cuts, Christopher Tayler, London Review of Books, Vol. 41 No. 4, 21 February 2019, page 28
  7. See the Wikipedia article on Saints in Anglicanism.
  8. See the Wikipedia article on King Charles the Martyr.