The Communion of Saints

With all the hype about Halloween, we often forget that the name is a contraction of All Hallow’s Eve—the night before All Saint’s Day. Realizing that I know next to nothing about the idea of sainthood, I did some research. In the process, I found a very helpful site that explained a lot:

The Church, East and West, has always distinguished between worship (latria), given to God alone, and veneration (dulia), which may be given to the saints. The highest form of veneration (hyperdulia) is due to the Blessed Virgin Mary. If someone is treating a saint as one should treat God, then yes, that is idolatry. That being said, Catholics believe that the saints have a role in our lives, as intercessors on our behalf, because we are all united by our communion in Christ. The saints are continually praying for us and interceding on our behalf, on account of their closeness to Christ. This is because God is the God of the living, not of the dead. As such, asking a saint for intercession is no more idolatrous than asking a holy friend or pastor to pray for you.

I was also amazed to discover that, according to Wikipedia,

There are more than 10,000 Roman Catholic saints. Among the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Communions, the numbers may be even higher, since there is no fixed process of “canonization” and each individual jurisdiction within the two Orthodox communions independently maintains parallel lists of saints that have only partial overlap.

Saints were originally honored on the anniversary of their martyrdom, which is why we have holidays (holy days) such as Saint Valentine’s Day and Saint Patrick’s Day. Eventually the church recognized saints who died from other causes, too. While every day of the year is assigned to at least one saint., the current Roman Catholic calendar has reduced the number of saints that have official feasts, leaving many days free.

In some cultures, your Name Day (the feast day of the saint for whom you were named) is celebrated instead of, or in addition to, your birthday. That wouldn’t change anything for our older daughter, Teri. We had already decided to name her Theresa, before she was born on October 15—the feast of St. Teresa of Avila!

When I was in junior high, Saint Christopher was soaring in popularity, but it had nothing to do with his pious life. A boy would buy a St. Christopher medal and wear it around his neck. Then, if he liked a girl, managed to haltingly ask her to “go steady,” and (miracle of miracles) she said yes, he would give her his medal to wear. Wearing the right boy’s St. Christopher medal was a symbol of high status among seventh grader girls.

Saints are part of our every day culture. Think of all the places named after saints, from Saint Louis to San Diego to Sao Paulo to Saint Petersburg. Our family used to live in Cupertino, California, a strange and wonderful place, so I looked up St. Joseph of Cupertino. According to one website,

St. Joseph of Cupertino, an obedient and humble … Franciscan priest and friar, would begin to float in the air and be completely oblivious to everything during his frequent spiritual ecstasies!! The brothers used stick pins and burning embers to try and get his attention, but he would only respond to direct orders by his superiors!

A number of other saints have made their way into our culture. Have you heard of St. Elmo’s fire? It occasionally formed a glowing orb around the top of a mast, usually during a thunderstorm.

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux was an influential priest who led a crusade to the Holy Land in the mid 1100s, and may or may not have liked dogs.

I then got curious about the concept of patron saints. Catholic.org describes patron saints as “special protectors or guardians over areas of life. … because an interest, talent, or event in their lives overlaps with the special area.”

I found a list of these areas and who their patrons are. It includes places, such as North Africa (Saint Cyprian of Carthage), persons or professions, such as archeologists (St. Damasus), and medical conditions, such as appendicitis (St. Elmo again).

I found that there are patron saints of apple orchards, engaged couples, hemorrhoid sufferers, desperate cases, whales, gas station workers, and even thieves. (I wonder if praying to Dismas, patron saint of thieves, is supposed to grant one protection from theft—or success in stealing!)

Saint Francis of Assisi appears to be the patron saint of yard ornaments, so I looked him up. Turns out he’s the patron of ecologists (among other things)—so I wasn’t too far off. He’s also the patron saint of Colorado. I wonder why?

Clare of Assisi (a friend of St. Francis) is the patron saint of television. Apparently, one Christmas she was too sick to go to the mass being held in a church several miles away, but she saw and heard it while at home in bed.

The stories and legends go on and on. New saints are still being added to the list; Mother Teresa is well on her way to being canonized. Whether or not you believe that praying to these particular people is helpful, we can all honor and learn from their faithful lives.

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