- Published on Sunday, 17 October 2010 07:05
- Written by John Draper
- Hits: 2756
With the Pope set to beatify and canonize new saints today, many people (even Catholics) want to know "what is a saint?". That's an official saint according to the Catholic Church. Although I'm by no means an expert on this, I was brought up a Catholic and before I defected I studied things like this. It's ironic that it takes an atheist to explain - you'd think the Catholic Church would make sure everyone understood - but maybe they naïvely think everyone already does.
First, the big question: Do Catholics think Saints can perform miracles or should be worshipped? No - the official teaching is that like anyone who is in heaven, saints intercede with God. So if you pray to them, they hear (so that means saints are omniscient!) and then ask God to help out. This also applies to the Virgin Mary but there is an implication that some people in heaven have an easier time convincing God to help than others. If your father dies and goes to heaven, then he's equivalent to a saint but most people (like your father) are not officially declared to be a saint.
Another implication is that certain people in heaven (saints) are interested in certain things - like Christopher takes a particular interest in travellers.
But the key point is that a saint must be in heaven so he/she has access to God. Note that many people think it's better to go straight to the top - the guy with the power - but perhaps he's too busy and a saint could help out. A bit like it's better to use a lobbyist than try to contact the Prime Minister directly.
In the Catholic Church, to be officially called a saint requires that he/she go through a vetting process. It has to be proved that the guy is in heaven and that he can get God to intercede. It starts with the candidate being declared holy - that is, probably in heaven. This is simply common opinion - there is no complicated process. He/she then gets the title "venerable". The next step is to be called "Blessed" or to be "Beatified". This requires proof that one miracle happened as a result of prayers to this person. How they know that someone unknown did not also pray to God is not explained. And miracles are not obvious things like an arm growing back or night turned to day or something that could never happen naturally - it is typically a cure that some doctor swears has "no explanation". Of course, there may be no current explanation but maybe one day there will be - like early people did not know that the sun was eclipsed. However, all that is needed is a human declaring that there is "no (known) explanation" for the cure or event. (More on miracles here)
Once a person has been beatified, they are eligible to be canonized as a saint - officially. This generally takes another miracle - just to be sure! Once someone is declared a saint, the faithful are reassured that the saint can be prayed to, Churches may be built and named after him/her, holy days may be declared in their honour etc..
So there you have it. But are all the saints holy? Probably not. One person who is on the fast track to being named a saint is (Blessed) Mother Theresa. But by many measures, she was far from saint-like. Very mercenary and lacking in common concern for the pain and welfare of those in her care (See Hitchens talk about her). Not all agree about her - but the decision will be made by humans making a judgement. Despite the care taken by the Catholic Church, they are constrained by their primitive belief system.
A current Canadian candidate for Sainthood is Blessed Brother Andre. I compare him to all the charlatan faith healers but with the difference that he never claimed to be a faith healer - he just exuded holiness and people believed he could help! No doubt a good man and I have no criticism of him - just the nonsense since his death. More from the Globe and Mail
In Australia, Blessed Mary McKillop is also getting attention as a candidate for the canonization process - she gets my vote since she was excommunicated for a while for not following the rules. ABC News. Here is a comment by an Australian Atheist on the lunacy of accepting the 2 "miracles" attributed to Mary McKillop.