July 24, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Basic Catholicism: Devotion to the saints

John F. Fink(Twenty-fourth in a series)

One of the ways that the Catholic Church differs from other religions is its devotion to saints. It has honored people who lived heroically holy lives since the beginning of Christianity, when it began to venerate St. Stephen as the first martyr.

For centuries, local churches remembered holy people after their deaths, calling them saints and praying to them to ask for their intercession with God. Finally, the popes reserved for themselves the right to declare someone a saint.

The Catholic Church canonizes people not only to honor them—they couldn’t care less, being in heaven—but, more important, to offer them as role models. Those of us who are still trying to work out our salvation can try to emulate some of the virtues displayed by those who were recognized for their holiness.

There are many more saints than just those the Church has officially canonized. To be a saint means simply that that person is in heaven. Naturally, we hope that all of us will be saints after we die, although there’s not much chance that the Church will officially declare us so.

There are various classifications of saints. The Blessed Virgin Mary is in a classification by herself since she is the mother of Jesus, who was both God and human.

Next by way of honor are the Apostles, first the 11 men who followed Jesus (excluding Judas, who betrayed him) and then Matthias, who was elected to replace Judas. St. Paul and St. Barnabas are also included as Apostles because of their importance in the early Church.

Next in honor are the martyrs, those who died rather than deny Christ. There have been martyrs in nearly every century, probably none more than during the 20th century.

Next are pastors, and these include especially holy popes, bishops, priests, abbots and missionaries.

These are followed by the Doctors of the Church, the 30 men and three women who are considered the Church’s most accomplished teachers, whose combination of intellectual brilliance and sanctity has been of extraordinary importance in the development of doctrine or spirituality.

After the Doctors of the Church come virgins, women who never married and devoted their lives to serving the Church or people. Blesssed Teresa of Calcutta will fit in this category when she is canonized.

Finally, we have the category of holy men and women, which covers those who don’t fit into one of the other classifications. They could be men or women in religious orders, or those who worked with the underprivileged, or teachers. This is the category that includes married men and women.

One of the things some people object to regarding Catholics’ devotion to the saints is the idea of praying for their intercession. That practice comes from the doctrine of the Communion of Saints, which is part of the Apostles Creed.

Catholics believe that the saints in heaven—and that includes anyone in heaven, not just those who have been canonized—can pray for us, just as those on Earth can do. †

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