Following some questions in the Brigid’s Forge Facebook group, I decided to write a post on saints in the Catholic Church. So I dug out my copy of the Catechism and started looking at what the official teachings of the church are and then I’ll follow on with the general Irish habits around saints and then some more specific stuff from me or my family. Fair warning, the Catechism is almost a thousand pages long and deals with many different aspects of Church teaching, so I’m not going to cover all of it in this post. In fact, if I wanted to cover the whole Catechism, I’d need to start an entire new blog and well, I’m busy enough with Brigid.
In the Catechism, a saint is defined as: the “holy one” who leads a life in union with God through the grace of Christ and receives the reward of eternal life. The Church is called the communion of saints, of the holy ones. The process of being officially designated a saint by the Church is called canonisation: the solemn declaration by the Pope that a deceased member of the faithful may be proposed as a model and intercessor to the Christian faithful and venerated as a saint on the basis of the fact that the person lived a life of heroic virtue or remained faithful to God through martyrdom.
The Church has an official stance on the intercession of saints between human and God: “being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in Holiness. They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus. So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped.” (paragraph 956 on the Communion of the Church of Heaven and Earth)
There is loads more on how we can interact officially with saints according to the Catechism, but this holds the nuts and bolts of the matter. The closer eyed among ye may have noticed, that actually, canonisation is only the formal recognition of sainthood. Anyone who reaches heaven is a saint, it’s just that the official saints are the ones the Church is reasonably certain are there in Heaven. (There’s a bit of the HUGE sense of superiority here, which is strange, or maybe not so much, coming from a religion that started with the most downtrodden members of society in Rome – obviously speaking to the Roman Church here and not anywhere else!)
In the early Church, many martyrs, those who died for their faith, were canonised, on the basis of their heroic witness to Christ, not denying him and choosing to die and join him rather than renounce him. (This was red martyrdom, due to the blood spilled). But of course, that violence and campaign against the early Christians didn’t last long, so the Church started looking for other evidence of holiness. Enter white martyrdom: the daily living of a Christian live that was so close to the perfection of Christ’s example that it was noted by the community. (note that no human can ever reach perfection, that’s solely the province of God). The white martyrs were famous for their holy living – there’s plenty examples of these in the Irish chronicles, seeing as our land converted to Christianity peacefully and about five centuries after the birth of Christ, there were no red martyrs in Ireland that I can remember now. (There may have been a few, but they were small in number!) Our own Brigid would be an example of this. It was almost canonisation by popular acclaim – people knew this person was holy and living the Christian life, so it was deemed appropriate to consider them heading straight to heaven instead of pausing in Purgatory for a while first. It was only in 1170 that it was officially determined no one could be declared a saint without the official approval/ permission of the pope. (This was Pope Alexander III and was brought about by the public acclaimation for a Swedish saint by public acclaim who was killed while drunk and so could not be said to have been a truly, 100% willing witness for Christ…)
A final type of martyrdom, extensively practiced in Ireland in about 5-7th centuries (ish) was the green martyrdom. Now the earliest mention I can find of this is from the Cambrai Homily (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cambrai_Homily – yes I know, it’s a wikipedia source, but it’s a decent enough starter for ten and it’s written in reasonably accessible language. Also there is some doubt as to whether the Cambrai Homily was actually a homily or actually an extract from a longer text/ gathering of texts). I should also not at this point that I’m not a scholar, so there could be many, many other sources out there for the green martyrdom. But essentially, the green martyrdom was through the physical deprivation in an attempt to get closer to God or possibly an extension of the older practice of fasting to gain justice. Here is where we get the Irish hermits. The ones that ended up on Skellig Michael of Star Wars fame, or out in the wilds, subsisting rather than existing, fasting and doing penance in order to become closer to God.
It is interesting to note though, that in any reference to martyrs I can find on Vatican websites, the shedding of blood is closely related to the idea of martyrdom.
Anyway, to sum up – while all Catholics are considered potentially saints, and once you get to Heaven, you are by definition a saint, the Church limits those who are officially designated saints to those they are sure, as close as can be, are in Heaven. So while, for example, on the occasion of my Grandad’s death, many called him a pious man and a saint, and while I might privately pray to him (and all my dead relatives at time to be honest), since I’m fairly certain if anyone is in heaven, he is, I can’t publicly venerate him or create a cult around him, since the Church doesn’t recognise him as a saint.
Every official saint in the Catholic Church has an official feast day. The practices around such feast days in folk tradition vary from nation to nation, tradition to tradition, region to region (and in some instances, parish to parish!) The Church practices though don’t as such vary. There is a special liturgy (this would be the celebration of Mass with particular readings relating to the saint usually, or a bit of the Bible that ties in with them, with a sermon or homily being delivered that is linked to the saint), sometimes novenas (series of prayers/activities over days), but that’s usually it.
In the folk tradition though, there can be other celebrations. The making of Brigid’s crosses throughout Ireland is a very common thing around the 1st February. The wearing of shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day would be common. The pattern day for many saints in rural Ireland mostly (in my life time anyway, presumably it was more widespread previously) were celebrations of the patron saint of the parish or area. The pattern day usually started at the local church with Mass, then moved on to a local shrine or holy well. (Seriously you can hardly walk 2 miles in Ireland without falling over some holy well or other!)Even today, pattern days are very popular among a subset of society, although the reforms enacted by the Church in the years following the famine removed much of the drinking, fighting and other non-religious activities. To be fair, the Church hierarchy also has an issue with the magical nature attributed to the shrines and wells, seeing as how they were seen as healing places for various ailments. None of this coincides with proper church teaching. However, even today, if you hit down near Liscannor in Co. Clare, around the time of the Feast of the Assumption in August, you’ll find a grand crowd in the area, visiting the well as they have done for generations. Not joking here – I forgot what day it was last summer and we got caught in the traffic jam… Liscannor is still reasonably famous, but there are other wells in this country that have similar traditions.
So, as an overview, saints can be used as intercessors for the faithful. It’s not exactly that we pray to the saint, technically speaking, it’s more that we ask for their support and help in making our prayers to God. Most of us though, will speak of praying to the saint for help or intercession. Some of the more common saints to be asking for help: St. Jude – lost causes, hospital workers; St. Anthony – lost items, native Americans, amputees, asses, barren women, elderly people, harvests, hogs/pigs/swine, mail, monks, oppressed people, poor, Portugal, shipwrecks, starvation/ starving people swineherds, travelling people, hostesses; St. Christopher – travel; Patrick – snakes, Ireland, engineers(who knew???) Nigeria and a few USA dioceses; St. Brigid – blacksmiths, cattle, dairy workers, fugitives, healers, Ireland, nuns, poultry and chicken farmers, printing presses, scholars; St Colmcille (3rd of our patron saints for Ireland) – Ireland, poets, exiles (although it should be noted that St Colmcille is known as St Columba in many records); St Therese of Lisieux – AIDS patients, aviators/ aviation, florists, foreign missions, France, missionaries, tuberculosis/consumption.
There are loads of lists on line for saints and what they’re patrons of, but do some research on it as well and make sure it’s the right saint you’re asking to intercede for you 🙂
On to my personal practice with saints now.
Above are two photos that sum up my devotion to St. Therese of Lisieux. I took St Therese as my confirmation name (Google it, it’s a sacrament of the Church), mostly due to the influence of my Dad, who gave me both the statue and the book in the pictures above. The statue is a small tin statue that was gilded long ago, but has faded. It was given to my Dad by his grandmother in the early 50’s when he went away to school so he’d have someone to look after him. He then gave it to me in the early 90’s for the same purpose. For the years I was in school, St. Therese sat on my bedside table and I would often kiss her goodnight as I went to bed. These days, she usually sits on our kitchen table at home, and I often pick her up to kiss her as I pass by – something I only realised when my husband pointed it out the other day! St. Therese is famous for her Little Way – this idea that living Christian life is not in the big acts, but in the small everyday things we do. How we act with others, how we treat others, how we interact with the world around us. St Therese is a modern saint as well, having been born in 1873 and dying young at age 24 in 1897. She was canonised in 1925.
She was born in France to two parents who both themselves wanted to enter religious life, but refused. She lived a life of small devotions, but her impact on the world, and most particularly on me, was huge. Seeing her relics as they toured Ireland a while ago was a very big deal to me. When I look at my statue, I see not only my Dad, but my great-grandmother as well (although she passed away long before I arrived on the scene!) I see the tradition of devotion in my family to this saint, that goes back generations. I see the practice of living life well, in right relationship, of doing the right thing as best we can, although it would be unusual for any of us to use those terms.
Through St Therese a lot of my feelings about daily life come to the fore: do the right thing, live as best you can, be ethical, examine what ethics mean to me, set up my life so it is easier to be in compliance with this goal. I will likely never have the influence of St Therese on this world, but I do have influence on those around me on a daily basis and so I try to follow her example as I live my life. I might go days, weeks, months, without consciously thinking of St. Therese in my daily life, but the little statue is always there on the kitchen table and I do, unthinkingly, regularly pick her up and kiss her.
On some occasions, I have asked for her intercession – now, there are specific prayers to St. Therese, but I can never remember them, so it’s more a case of ordering my thoughts as best I can and laying out my request to her. They’re not usually connected to the items listed in the paragraph above either, seeing as how I’ve never been called to serve France or go on a mission. I hate flying! I do take to heart though, that it is by living our lives in the right way, the good way, that we are an example to others and that is what I try to do. While my belief system is not the same as hers, there are massive overlaps.
It could be said I have a devotion to St Therese – in Ireland, this means a person is known for contacting a particular saint above all others, no matter what the circumstances. This is part of building that relationship that we often speak of in paganism. Why would I bother St Anthony to find something when I never speak to him otherwise? St Therese might know me at this point…
Relationship with the saints is a complicated thing in Catholicism and we accept and absorb much of it as we grow up. Most of us think nothing of mentioning St Jude when times appear dark or St Anthony for when something is lost. I’ve seen St Anthony being invoked at 3am on Harcourt Street in Dublin. To describe Harcourt Street – well… there’s more than a few nightclubs there and the image of a reasonable well oiled college student down on his knees in the middle of the street calling out to St. Anthony for his wallet is one that won’t leave you. He found the damn thing a few mins later as well! I’ve heard people mutter to themselves to various saints on different occasions. Official Church teaching doesn’t always match what’s actually happening on the ground.
But I hope this gives an insight into how this Catholic (however pagan) related to saints and how they work in the system of worship. Any questions that come out of this, post them in the comments 🙂