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In general, the term saint is used to refer to someone thought to be especially virtuous and holy. This person may or may not be canonized, recognized or venerated by a religion. The word "saint" comes from the Latin word sanctus, which means "holy."

Various religions which recognize saints include Christianity, (Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestant), Hinduism, Islam (Sufism), and the Cuban Santería religion. Some people in the New Age movement also may incorporate saints into their beliefs.


Saints in Christianity

Formal definitions

In the Catholic and Orthodox churches, a saint is more particularly a person who has been canonised (officially recognized) by a Christian church. This can only take place after their death, because even the holiest person alive may fall into mortal sin at the last moment, and to avoid haste and allow ample time for sober reflection on the person's life. Doctrine on this matter is that lack of formal recognition should not be taken to mean that an individual is necessarily not a saint, hence the festival of All Saints. In many Protestant churches, the word is used more generally to refer to anyone who is a Christian.

Usage of the Greek word for saint in the New Testament

The Greek word for saint, `αγιος, agios, as a noun, means "holy one" - literally, "one set apart" (to God).

In the New Testament of the Bible, the Greek term `αγιος has various applications, including:

  • Most often, a Christian believer, alive or dead, no matter what their evident importance in terms of church history. Many of Paul's letters are addressed "to all the saints..." and sometimes "...along with the elders". For example, Ephesians opens with " the saints which are at Ephesus...".
  • The Holy One, referring to God (see 1 John 2:20, Rev. 3:7, Acts 3:14, Mark 1:24)
  • Possibly, the meaning of "Saint" (with a capital "S"), applied to individual persons. This is a person regarded as outstandingly virtuous and holy. There are many places in which it's difficult to distinguish whether the intended meaning of `αγιος is "saint" (generic term for any Christian) or "Saint" (a particularly holy Christian). `αγιος is used in Matthew 27:53, where it talks about the saints having fallen asleep (in the Old Testament) and being raised upon Christ's resurrection. Here, the term may or may not mean "God's holy one" moreso than "any Christian".

The conception of seeking out holy people within Christian history has been around since the earliest times. Didache was probably finished before much of the New Testament (50-120 AD), and it says, "Moreover thou shalt seek out day by day the persons of the saints, that thou mayest find rest in their words," (4:3). Though "saints" here is a different Greek word (to be identified), which lends even further support to the word not referring to Christians in general, it can be seen that the conception of Christians seeking out other holier Christians has been around since the beginning.

The earliest occurrence of `αγιος as a "Saint" might occur in The Shepherd of Hermas, chapter 5 (or 13, depending on how you count), verse 2. (I can't verify this--someone with a Greek copy will have to verify it). "The Shepherd" was authored at about the same time as 2 Peter.

Saints in Hinduism

Saints are also recognized in Hinduism. One of the most famous Hindu saints, Raghavendra Swami performed miracles during his lifetime and continues to bless his devotees. He espoused Vaishnavism monotheism (worship of Vishnu as Supreme God) and Dvaita philosophy. See [1] and [2].

Saints in Islam

Although not recognised by Islamic scholars, the veneration of saints and tombs or shrines in Islam is very widespread and includes all geographical areas of the Muslim world, including the conservative Arabian peninsula. Saints are believed to have a power of intercession with God (Allah), and thus the ability to perform miracles and to give power or blessings, known as "baraka".

In most Muslim countries there are religious festivities associated with saints, such as "Urs" festivals in India and Pakistan or the annual "Mawlid" in Egypt. On these days, the local saint(s) is/are venerated, and blessings are expected. Believers are nevertheless careful to deistinguish between the blessings of the prophets (particularly Moses, Jesus and Mohammed) and those of the saints.

Saints are an important component of popular Islam and are associated with Sufism, which includes many of the mystical branches of Islam. Sufism has several orders with precepts ("tariqa") for students ("murid") who seek to follow the teachings of a saint. Although saints are acknowledged by many sufis, Sufism distances itself from the more animistic and cultic aspects of the veneration of saints, which includes, as in popular Christianity, all types of religious paraphernalia and popular rituals.

Saints in Santería

The veneration of 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").

Saints: alternative definitions

For some people, not attached to the Catholic and Orthodox denominations, a saint is a man or a woman who has a direct personal link or connection with God and who can put a person on the way back to God. Many gurus overtly or covertly claim to be saints, which followers may believe to be true, even if the objective evidence doesn't match a formal definition of a saint.

Liturgical functions of saints

Saints are thought to be able to act as intermediaries between God and people by praying to God on behalf of specific people, sometimes at the request of believers. Though some individuals are widely held to be saints in their lifetimes, they are sometimes not recognized as such by churches.

The word "saint" comes from the Latin word sanctus, which means "holy." A few English-speaking Eastern Orthodox believers prefer to use the English word "holy" rather than "saint", or use the two terms interchangeably, and so will refer to St. Peter as "Holy Peter" or "the Holy Apostle Peter", for example.

In most other languages, the word for "saint" would be more literally translated "holy", such as `αγιος (agios) in Greek, santo in Spanish, saint or sacré in French, etc. A related word in English is "sanctify", which means "to make holy". So, in the broad sense of the word, "saint" can mean all those who have been sanctified, or all believers. The narrower and more common sense of the word today is those whom a church has widely recognized as having been sanctified, as demonstrated in a number of different ways.

This practice explains why, in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, the names of angels are usually preceded by the word "saint" despite their lack of a human existence - Saint Michael the Archangel never had to be canonized; the name means "Holy Michael".

Recognition of particular saints

The Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches are the churches in which the veneration of saints is most common. They do not, however, honor all the same individuals as saints.

Some of the reasons for differences are historical, rooted in the Great Schism. Others are local. In the early Christian Church, treatment as a saint depended on local and regional recognition of an individual's sanctity and reputation of miracles. Most saints had only local devotional cults, and only the most famous - the apostles, the companions of Christ, persons mentioned in Scripture, and very few international celebrities - came to receive wide-spread devotion. The ancient practice is still often the case within the Orthodox Churches.

The western Christian church developed its institutionalized system of canonization shortly before the Great Schism, and so a highly organized calendar of observation of saints' days is seen in Roman Catholicism and a few of its break-away churches (the Anglican Communion has partially preserved the idea of an organized attention to the saints). The Orthodox churches also have calendars of saints' days, in some cases honoring saints on the same day as in the West. However, they often have more variation in which saints are remembered, since the calendars are largely determined by the different patriarchs, metropolitans and archbishops.

Even inside the Roman Catholic church, there are different extents of devotion. Some saints' days are observed only in a single diocese. It is hard to find any actual examples of that, but it is canonically possible. Many are honored as saints in their own home region, and others are honored as saints only by a particular religious order. For instance, each monastic order honors many individuals who were members of that order with special saint-days which are ignored in the broader structure of parishes. In many Eastern Orthodox parishes, it is the custom to remember the names of members of that parish as part of the liturgical prayers long after those members have died.

Related customs

A related practice is the veneration of relics. A relic is a part of a saint's body, often a small bone fragment. Relics are venerated or honored much in the same way that icons are venerated. In Christianity, the practice began during the early centuries when Christians had to hide in catacombs to escape persecution. In those circumstances, they were literally praying in the company of dead Christians. That reality, combined with belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the eventual resurrection of all believers, and the apparent witnessing of miracles connected with relics, led to the current practice.

In both Western and Eastern Christian churches, members often are given a "saint's name" or the name of a patron saint at the time of their chrismation (Eastern) or baptism (Western). This saint is given to that person to pray for them and intercede for them, and that person will give special honor to and pray to that saint. The date that the saint is honored in the church also becomes the new member's "saint's day" or "name day." Sometimes a person will become known in the church exclusively by their saint's name; then this name may be called the person's "ecclesial name", since it's the name by which they are known in the church.

In spite of this difference, the Western and Eastern Christian churches do not hold a position on the validity of the other's lists and calendars of saints, and do not consider the other's lists as relevant.


A number of people are venerated as saints who may never have actually existed. The polite term for this is ahistorical. Sorting out exactly which saints are historical is difficult, because of the larger difficulty of proving a negative: the absence of independent records of a saint's existence doesn't prove she or he never existed, because there are no specific records of the existence of many people who lived before the 20th century. The Acta Sanctorum ( hagiographical work) of the Bollandists forms a major part of the historiography of named saints.

Related to this, some pre-Christian deities (especially in Rome's area) are alleged to have been adopted as saints. Some cults seem to have been Christianized fairly directly - for example, it is often asserted that Saint Brigid was based on the Celtic goddess Brigid, worshipped before Christianity ever reached Ireland. One basis for the claim is the similarity of names. It is not unlikely that older beliefs and legends related to pre-Christian gods have been grafted onto the lives of humans who are venerated as saints. Another possibility is that some people were named after pagan gods, converted to Christianity, and were later recognized by the Church as saints.

The converse of this is the idea that not all saints are known to any church. For example, anyone who died for his or her Christian belief is counted as a saint, whether or not anyone knows about the martyrdom. The doctrine is that God creates saints, and the church merely recognizes them; that even if no church knows of a martyr, God does. For this reason, both the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox celebrate All Saints' Day in commemoration of the "unknown" saints.

The concept of the bodhisattva in some schools of Buddhism is in some respects comparable to that of the Christian saint.

The shortened form of the word "Saint"

It is claimed by some manuals of style and usage of the English language that the correct shortened form of "Saint" is "St" without the dot, period, or full stop. The reasons stated are because "St" is a contraction, not an abbreviation; and because it includes the last letter of the word, which, in British usage since about 1940 or 1950 (but not in American usage nor in older British usage) generally means the full stop is not used. Thus, according to this view, St Bernard is correct and St. Bernard is wrong. However, nearly all published books, in both British English and American English, use "St." with the dot.

When many saints are being mentioned consecutively, "S." is sometimes used for "Saint" (and "SS." for "Saints"), with or without the final punctuation mark.

See also

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45