Devotion to the Saints
Devotion to the Saints
The Catholic practice of devotion to the saints can seem alienating to some people. We have Masses, say prayers, and celebrate feast days for them; we name our children and our churches after them.
Altogether, veneration of the saints is a distinctly Catholic practice and one that seems especially confusing for those unfamiliar with the Church. Isn’t it idolatry? Don’t these saint devotions mean we see these people as gods or goddesses? These ideas are, of course, false – misconceptions sometimes purposely perpetrated and other times believed out of genuine misunderstanding. In fact devotion to and remembrance of the holy men and women who lived and died for their faith before us is one of the earliest of Christian devotions.
The History of Catholic Saint Devotions
The honoring of saints began within the first generations of the Catholic Church. In early tradition, it was the martyrs who were remembered. The early martyrs were men and women whose Christianity brought them into friction within Jewish and pagan communities and eventually led to their executions. Altars were erected on top of the tombs of these martyrs, where Mass would be said, especially on the anniversary of the martyr’s death. In time, when permanent churches were able to be built, chapels and eventually basilicas were built on top the resting places of the martyrs.
In time, others were honored as well. Throughout these early centuries, there were confessors, who publicly testified to their faith but were not killed for it. They were instead tortured, jailed, or exiled for their beliefs, and so after their deaths they were remembered in the same ways as the martyrs. By the end of the 4th century, virgins and ascetics – among them monks who chose to live in the deserts in order to gain holiness by rejecting the corrupt nature of their surroundings – would be honored as well.
In the first few centuries of the Church, prior to the 5th century, these martyrs were typically only remembered and honored in their own regions, in the cities or villages where they had lived and died. It was in the 5th century that churches began to ‘borrow’ saints from other churches. They would borrow the lists of saints, particularly revering some more well known saints who had universal appeal, and relics were shared among churches as well.
Over time, more forms of devotion to the saints came into practice. Among these are such practices as praying novenas or other prayers to saints, and praying to saints for particular situations. Carrying an image of a favorite beloved saint became common throughout the Middle Ages and remains so today. Carrying a holy card, a pocket piece or coin, or wearing a medal with an image of a saint is a way to remind oneself constantly to emulate the saint’s life and to pray.
Communion of the Saints
The practice of veneration of the saints is not simply that we liked these holy men and women and what they did to defend the faith. It is rooted in the Catholic understanding of the Church as a communion of saints. By the late 5th century “I believe in. . . the holy Catholic Church; the communion of saints” was recited in the Apostles Creed, the popular belief and practice going back even further.
The Catholic Encyclopedia concisely describes the Communion of saints in this way:
“The communion of saints is the spiritual solidarity which binds together the faithful on earth, the souls in purgatory, and the saints in heaven in the organic unity of the same mystical body under Christ its head, and in a constant interchange of supernatural offices.”
Because the pilgrim Church on earth is in constant communion with the saints in heaven with God, it is only natural to remember them by name in Masses and pray for their intercession.
The concept of patron saints was developed in the Middle Ages, first in Germany and France and then spreading throughout Europe and beyond in time. Children would be named for saints at baptism, and the saint would become a special patron of the person. In life one was encouraged and expected to learn about his or her patron saint, and pray to the saint for guidance and protection, and model his or her life after the saint. In time particular places or cities would be named for a particular saint, and saints came to be named as patron of particular careers or aspects of life. This patronage is usually rooted in what the saint did or accomplished in life. For example St. Joseph is patron of workers and of Christian fathers, and St. Thomas More is patron of lawyers.
Learn More about the Saints and Popular Devotions
Catholic Customs and Traditions is a great introductory resource, whether you are first approaching the Church or just want to brush up on the reasoning behind the many traditions Catholics have. It’s a great overview style tool, providing informative yet concise backgrounds to many Catholic customs and practices.
On the other hand, if you are ready to delve deeply into the subject of Catholic devotions to saints in greater depth, Saint Worship and the Worship of Mary: Why Devotion to the Saints Makes Sense is a great place to begin. In an accessible yet thorough manner the book really touches on all the crucial points as to why saint devotion is not only acceptable and logical, but also a practice to be encouraged.
To view more of our books on the saints, click here.