Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

What role do saints play in Christian tradition?

Paragons of holiness and virtue have always played an important role in Christian tradition. The Old and New Testaments describe hundreds of outstanding models of the life of faith. Different churches have had various ways of acknowledging sanctity in historical individuals. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and other Eastern traditions have placed the greatest emphasis on the role of saints in piety and devotion. All share a reverence for the great Greek Fathers of the Church, for example. All mention the names of saints as part of their liturgical prayer, and Eastern Christians venerate icons of saints much as Catholics incorporate various types of saints’ images in their devotional life. Holy persons are especially important as mediators, embodiments of holiness popularly thought to be immediately accessible to ordinary people. Saints hear the needs and aspirations of those who beseech them, and present these prayers to God.

Protestant tradition has generally denied any such mediatorial role, as well as the human mediation implied in priesthood. Many Protestant reformers regarded devotion to the saints as an unacceptable dilution of Christian piety, an unnecessary detour on a direct road to God. Catholics and Orthodox continue to identify extraordinary individuals as worthy of sainthood, and the Catholic Church particularly maintains an elaborate mechanism for assessing the merits of individual claims. Advocates for a potential saint present the case to the local bishop, perhaps including claims of miracles and authentication of relics. The bishop may then forward the case to the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints. A church official known popularly as a “devil’s advocate” raises objections to the cause so as to expose any weaknesses in the argument. Once sufficient evidence of two authentic miracles has been advanced, the pope may declare the person “blessed” in what is called a “beatification” ceremony. Before the final declaration of sainthood, or “canonization,” proof of two further miracles is required.


This is a web preview of the "The Handy Religion Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App