AskDefine | Define sainthood

Dictionary Definition



1 saints collectively
2 the status and dignity of a saint

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. the state of being a saint
  2. saints collectively


Extensive Definition

A saint is a particularly holy person, recognized by fellow believers as someone who lived a divine life and who is in the Divine presence after death. The term is used within Christianity, with definitions varying by denomination, but English-language publications will sometimes use saint to describe a revered person from another religion. The word itself means “holy” and is derived from the Latin sanctus. The concept originates in early Greek Christian literature with the use of the word hagios (Greek άγιος meaning “holy” or “holy one”) and in the New Testament, where it is used to describe the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. (In the Old Testament, the word cognate to "holy" is the Hebrew word qodesh, קדש)
Other religions also recognize certain individuals as having particular holiness or enlightenment.

Characteristics and definitions

John A. Coleman S.J., associate professor of religion and sociology at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, wrote in 1987 that saints across various cultures and religions have the following family resemblances 1. exemplary model 2. extraordinary teacher 3. wonder worker or source of benevolent power, 4. intercessor 5. possessor of a special and revelatory relation to the holy.
The anthropologist Lawrence Babb in an article about Sathya Sai Baba asks the question "Who is a saint?", and responds by saying that in the symbolic infrastructure of some religions, there is the image of certain extraordinary spiritual persons who are "commonly believed to possess miraculous powers", and to whom frequently a certain moral presence is attributed. These saintly figures, he asserts, are "the focal points of spiritual force-fields," exerting "powerful attractive influence on followers but touch the inner lives of others in transforming ways as well."


According to the Church of England, a saint is one who is sanctified, as it translates in the Authorised King James Version (1611) 2 Chronicles 6:41 Now therefore arise, O LORD God, into thy resting place, thou, and the ark of thy strength: let thy priests, O LORD God, be clothed with salvation, and let thy saints rejoice in goodness. The early Christians were all called saints (Book of Hebrews 13:24; Jude 1:3; Philemon 1:5, 7). This is based on the mistranslated 1917 version of The Jewish Publication Society of America Hebrew Bible which translated "Hasidism" in that verse as "saints", rather than as "pious" (from the Hebrew root word חסד, /chesed/, meaning "lovingkindness").
The concept of sainthood is rooted in the Christian belief that aligning one’s motives and actions with the will of God makes one more perfect and holy, and that it is possible in life to approach perfection. From early days of Christianity, Paul the Apostle and others used the word agios (“holy”) to refer not only to all living believers (as in Bible verse |Philippians|4:21-22|KJV or Bible verse |Revelation|20:9|KJV) but, at times, also to those in heaven (as in Bible verse 1|Thessalonians|3:13|KJV). As Christianity developed, the word saint came to be used more commonly to designate specific individuals who were held to be exemplars of the faith, and who were commemorated or venerated as an inspiration to other Christians. Initially, the term was used to describe those who had been martyrs for the faith. Other believers would gather at the martyr’s grave, and celebrate the Eucharist there. The ceremony took the form of a joyful, triumphant celebration. The first recorded instance of such ceremonies is the annual celebrations at the grave of Polycarp in the second century. From the beginning of Christianity, Christians prayed to departed friends and relatives to intercede on their behalf, and such prayers were soon extended to those regarded as saints. Rather quickly, the saints' intercession was sought more frequently than that of departed personal friends. Bishops and martyrs tended to be the most frequently venerated during these early years. Examples of early requests for intercession can be found in the Catacombs of Rome. The older term for saint is martyr, meaning someone who would rather die than give up their faith, or more specifically, witness for God. However, as the word martyr took on more and more the meaning of "one who died for the Faith," the term saint, meaning holy, became more common to describe the whole of Christian witnesses, both martyrs and confessors. The Catholic Church teaches that it does not, in fact, make anyone a saint. Rather, it recognizes a saint. In the Roman Catholic church, the title of Saint - with a capital 'S' - refers to a person who has been formally canonized (officially recognised) by the Church.
Also, by this definition there are many people believed to be in heaven who have not been formally declared as Saints (most typically due to their obscurity and the involved process of formal canonization) but who may nevertheless generically be referred to as saints (lowercase 's'). Anyone in heaven is, in the technical sense, a saint. Unofficial devotions to uncanonised individuals take place in certain regions.
The veneration of saints, in Latin, cultus, or the cult of the saints, describes a particular popular devotion to the saints. Although the term "worship" is often used, it is intended in the old sense meaning to honor or give respect (dulia). Divine Worship is properly reserved only for God (latria) and never to the Saints. In Roman Catholic theology, since God is the God of the Living, then it follows that the saints are alive in Heaven. As "special friends of God" they can be asked to intercede or pray for those still on earth. A saint may be designated as a patron saint of particular causes or professions, or invoked against specific illnesses or disasters. They are not thought to have power of their own, but only that granted by God. Relics of saints are respected in a similar manner to holy images and icons. The practices of past centuries in calling upon relics of saints for healing is taken from the early Christian church. The worship of saints is referred to as 'hagiolatry'.
Once a person has been declared a saint, the body of the saint is considered holy. The remains of saints are called holy relics and are usually used in Churches. The saints' personal belongings may also be used as relics. Some of the saints have a symbol that represents their life.


In the Roman Catholic tradition, a person that is seen as exceptionally holy can be declared a saint by a formal process, called canonization. This particular form of recognition formally allows the person so canonized to be listed in the official Litany of the Saints during Mass. Formal canonization is a lengthy process often taking many years, even centuries. The first step in this process is an investigation of the candidate's life, undertaken by an expert. After this, the report on the candidate is given to the bishop of the area and more studying is done. It is then sent to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome. If they approve it, then the person may be granted the title of "Venerable", further investigations may lead to the candidate's beatification and given title of "Blessed." At a minimum, two important miracles are required to be formally declared a saint. The Church, however, places special weight on those miracles or instances of intercession that happened after the individual died and which are seen to demonstrate the saint's continued special relationship with God after death. Finally, when all of this is done the Pope canonises the saint.

Eastern Orthodoxy

In the Eastern Orthodox Church a Saint is defined as anyone who is in Heaven, whether recognized here on earth, or not. By this definition, Adam and Eve, Moses, the various Prophets, the Angels and Archangels are all given the title of "Saint".
Orthodox belief considers that God reveals his Saints through answered prayers and other miracles. Saints are usually recognized by a local community, often by people who directly knew them. As their popularity grows they are often then recognized by the entire church. The formal process of recognition involves deliberation by a synod of Bishops. If successful, this is followed by a service of Glorification in which the Saint is given a day on the church calendar to be celebrated by the entire church. This does not however make the person a saint; the person already was a saint and the Church ultimately recognized it.
It is believed that one of the ways the holiness (saintliness) of a person is revealed is through the condition of their relics (remains). In some Orthodox countries (such as Greece, but not in Russia) graves are often reused after 3 to 5 years because of limited space. Bones are washed and placed in an ossuary, often with the person's name written on the skull. Occasionally when a body is exhumed something miraculous is reported as having occurred; exhumed bones are claimed to have given off a fragrance, like flowers, or a body is reported as having remained free of decay, despite not having been embalmed (traditionally the Orthodox do not embalm the dead) and having been buried for some years in the earth.
The reason relics are considered sacred is because, for the Orthodox, the separation of body and soul is unnatural. Body and soul both comprise the person, and in the end, body and soul will be reunited; therefore, the body of a saint shares in the “Holiness” of the soul of the saint. As a general rule only clergy will touch relics in order to move them or carry them in procession, however, in veneration the faithful will kiss the relic to show love and respect toward the saint. Every altar in every Orthodox church contains relics, usually of martyrs. Church interiors are covered with the Icons of saints.
Because the Church shows no true distinction between the living and the dead (the Saints are considered to be alive in Heaven), saints are referred to as if they were still alive. Saints are venerated but not worshipped. They are believed to be able to intercede for salvation and help mankind either through direct communion with God, or by personal intervention.
When a person is baptized in the Orthodox Church, he or she is given a new name, always the name of a saint. Regardless of the name a person was born with, the person begins to use his saint's name as his own during Communion, to help indicate that through his baptism the person has begun his life anew. This saint becomes one's personal patron, and his saint's day is also celebrated as a personal holiday. After infant baptism became widespread, though, the child usually received the name in a ceremony held 8 days after the birth, inside the house. Nowadays this service has almost become obsolete and the child is named at baptism.


In the Anglican Church, the title of Saint - with a capital 'S' - refers to a person who has been elevated by popular opinion as a pious and holy person. The saints are seen as models of holiness to be imitated, and as a 'cloud of witnesses' that strengthen and encourage the believer during his or her spiritual journey (Bible verse |Hebrews|12:1|KJV). The saints are seen as elder brothers and sisters in Christ. Official Anglican creeds recognise the existence of the saints in heaven.
So far as saintly intercession is concerned, Article XXII of Church of England's Articles of Religion "Of Purgatory" condemns "the Romish Doctrine concerning...(the) Invocation of Saints" as "a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God". However, each of the 44 member churches in the Anglican Communion are free to adopt and authorise their own official documents, and the Articles are not officially normative in all of them (e.g., The Episcopal Church USA, which relegates them to "Historical Documents"). Anglo-Catholics in Anglican provinces using the Articles often make a distinction between a "Romish" and a "Patristic" doctrine concerning the invocation of saints, permitting the latter.
Some Anglicans and Anglican churches, particularly Anglo-Catholics, personally ask prayers of the saints. However, such a practice is not found in any official Anglican liturgy. Anglicans believe that the only effective Mediator between the believer and the Father is the Son, Jesus Christ. But those who pray to saints make a distinction between "mediator" and "intercessor," and claim that asking for the prayers of the saints in no different in kind than asking for the prayers of living Christians.
Anglican Catholic denominations understand sainthood in a more Roman Catholic or Orthodox way, often praying for intercessions from the saints and celebrating their feast days.


In many Protestant churches, the word "Saint" is used more generally to refer to anyone who is a Christian. This is similar in usage to Paul's numerous references in the New Testament of the Bible. In this sense, anyone who is within the Body of Christ (i.e., a professing Christian) is a 'saint' because of their relationship with Jesus. Because of this, many Protestants consider prayers to the saints to be idolatry or even necromancy. There are some groups which are generally classified as Protestants who do not accept the idea of the communion of saints. These groups, which are often more specifically referred to as Restorationists, do not believe in the efficacy of the intercession of saints. This is primarily due to two distinct, but opposing beliefs found within the various "Restorationists". Some believe all of the departed are in soul sleep until the final resurrection on Judgment Day. Others believe that the departed go to either Paradise or Tartarus, to await the day in which the living and the dead are judged.
High church Lutherans may use the term "saint" similarly to the manner in which other Catholics use it.

Latter-day Saints

The beliefs of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Mormons with regard to saints are similar to the Protestant tradition described above. In the New Testament the saints are all those who have entered into the Christian covenant. The qualification "Latter-Day" Saints refers to the doctrine that members are living in the "latter days" before the second coming of Jesus Christ, and is used to distinguish the modern church from the ancient Christian church. Therefore members refer to themselves as "Latter-day Saints", or simply "Saints", most often among themselves.

Santeria - Voodoo

The veneration of Roman Catholic saints forms the basis of the Cuban Santería religion. In Santería, saints are syncretised with Yoruban deities, and are equally worshipped in churches (where they appear as saints) and in Santería religious festivities, where they appear as deities (orishas); however, this practice is condemned vehemently by the Roman Catholic Church as sacrilegious and contrary to Catholic practice.
Santeria, Haitian Vodou, Brazilian Umbanda and other similar religions adopted the Roman Catholic Saints, or the images of the saints, as representations of their own spirits/deities or 'Orishas' in Santeria and 'Lwa' in Vodoun. Although there are many similarities between Vodoun and Santeria, they are different in respect to origin and language (Vodou is French, Santeria is Spanish). The adoption of Catholic Saints was fairly common in the religions that were adapted by the slaves in the New World. It can be understood as an example of faux-Catholicism.

Other religions

The concept of sainthood developed in the Christian tradition. However, there are parallel concepts in other religions that recognize certain individuals as having particular holiness (or enlightenment). Judaism speaks of a class of (unidentified) individuals known as Tzadikkim. Some other faiths honor individuals as "saints" or equivalent as well.
There are individuals who have been described as being Hindu saints, most of whom have also been more specifically identified by the terms Mahatma, Paramahamsa, or Swami, or with the titles Sri or Srila. However, modern use of these terms has been strongly influenced by Theosophy. Buddhists hold the Arhats and Arahants in special esteem. Some groups of Islam hold the hadrat in similar esteem.
Anthropologists have also noted the parallels between the regard for some Sufi figures in popular Muslim observance and Christian ideas of sainthood. In some Muslim countries there are shrines at the tombs of Sufi "saints", with the observation of festival days on the anniversary of death, and a tradition of miracle-working. In some cases, the rites are observed according to the solar calendar, rather than the normal Islamic lunar calendar.
While there are parallels between these (and other) concepts and that of sainthood, it is important to remember that each of these concepts has specific meanings within their given religion, and not all of those meanings are identical with the meaning of the idea of sainthood. Also, several religions which are at times considered to be new religious movements have taken to using the word, sometimes in cases where the people so named were generally not regarded to be Christians, in the conventional sense. Some of the Cao Dai saints and Saints of Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica are examples of such.
The concept of sant or bhagat found in North Indian religious tradition, is unrelated and a false cognate of "saint". Figures such as Kabir, Ravidas, Nanak, and others are widely regarded as belonging to the Sant tradition. Some of their mystical compositions are incorporated in the Guru Granth Sahib. The term "Sant" is still sometimes loosely applied to living individuals in the Sikh and related communities.


  • Cunningham, Lawrence S. The Meaning of Saints. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980.
  • Hawley, John Stratton, ed. Saints and Virtues. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.
  • Hein, David. "Saints: Holy, Not Tame." Sewanee Theological Review 49 (2006): 204–17.
  • Hein, David. "Farrer on Friendship, Sainthood, and the Will of God." In Captured by the Crucified: The Practical Theology of Austin Farrer. Edited by David Hein and Edward Hugh Henderson. New York and London: T & T Clark / Continuum, 2004. 119-48.
  • O'Malley, Vincent J. "Ordinary Suffering of Extraordinary Saints", 1999. ISBN 0-87973-893-6
  • Perham, Michael. The Communion of Saints. London: Alcuin Club / SPCK, 1980.
  • Woodward, Kenneth L. Making Saints. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
  • Jean-Luc Deuffic (éd.), Reliques et sainteté dans l'espace médiéval


External links

sainthood in Breton: Sant
sainthood in Bulgarian: Светец
sainthood in Catalan: Sant
sainthood in Czech: Svatý
sainthood in Welsh: Sant
sainthood in Danish: Helgen
sainthood in German: Heiliger
sainthood in Estonian: Pühak
sainthood in Spanish: Santo
sainthood in Esperanto: Sanktulo
sainthood in French: Saint
sainthood in Korean: 성인 (종교)
sainthood in Croatian: Svetac
sainthood in Indonesian: Santo
sainthood in Icelandic: Dýrlingur
sainthood in Italian: Santo
sainthood in Hebrew: קדוש (נצרות)
sainthood in Latin: Sanctus
sainthood in Limburgan: Heilige
sainthood in Hungarian: Szent
sainthood in Dutch: Heilige (christendom)
sainthood in Japanese: 聖人
sainthood in Norwegian: Helgen
sainthood in Norwegian Nynorsk: Helgen
sainthood in Narom: Saint
sainthood in Polish: Święty
sainthood in Portuguese: Santo
sainthood in Russian: Святой
sainthood in Albanian: Shenjtori
sainthood in Slovenian: Svetnik
sainthood in Serbian: Светац
sainthood in Finnish: Pyhimys
sainthood in Swedish: Helgon
sainthood in Tagalog: Santo
sainthood in Tamil: புனிதர்
sainthood in Thai: นักบุญ
sainthood in Vietnamese: Thánh (Kitô Giáo)
sainthood in Ukrainian: Святі
sainthood in Venetian: Santo
sainthood in Walloon: Sint
sainthood in Chinese: 圣人

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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