The word saint comes from the Latin sancta, which means “holy.”
What is a saint?
There are many definitions of the word saint, some of them more accurate than others. Most commonly, four different usages are found in contemporary culture. The first two definitions are cultural, the second two theological:
- The most general: a saint is anybody who does good in the world, regardless of religion.
- A saint is any pious or holy Catholic.
- The general theological definition: a saint is any and every person in heaven. They may or may not be known to us on earth
- A saint is a person whose virtue and holiness are recognized by the Church in that they are publicly proclaimed to be among the blessed in heaven; this person is referred to as a “canonized” saint.
Definition 1 is the most frequently used, but it is entirely inaccurate. Usually, when saint is used in this way it means that a person is very virtuous, admirable, giving, etc. But it says nothing about real holiness.
Definition 2 is used frequently within the Church to denote a person who is extraordinarily pious or religious. But usually, this usage is meant as a statement of exaggerated praise, not as a theological truth. We do not necessarily know if our pious grandma is in heaven or not; the use of the term saint in this way is an exaggerated way of saying she was very pious.
With definitions 3 and 4 we come to the precise, theological usage of the word saint. Generally speaking, a saint is anybody who is in heaven, including the angels (who are referred to as saints in the Church’s liturgy). Most often, when Catholics speak of saints, they are referring to the tiny fraction of the blessed in heaven whose holiness has been recognized publicly by the Church in her worship and teaching through the process of canonization.
What is holiness?
Holiness is first and foremost defined as setting apart unto God, though St. Thomas Aquinas adds the characteristic of firmness or stability to it. It is a firm and continuous separation from the world and firm consecration to God. St. Thomas says:
Purity is necessary in order that the mind be applied to God, since the human mind is soiled by contact with inferior things, even as all things depreciate by admixture with baser things, for instance, silver by being mixed with lead. Now in order for the mind to be united to the Supreme Being it must be withdrawn from inferior things: and hence it is that without purity the mind cannot be applied to God. Wherefore it is written (Hebrews 12:14): "Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see God." Again, firmness is required for the mind to be applied to God, for it is applied to Him as its last end and first beginning, and such things must need to be most immovable. Hence the Apostle said (Romans 8:38-39): "I am sure that neither death nor life . . . shall be able to separate us from the love of God" (STh, II-II, q. 81 a. 8)
Total holiness consists in the complete abandonment of one’s own will to the will of God and the total renunciation of sin. This is the end result of the process of sanctification and is completed ultimately only in heaven. This is the fullness of Christian life and the reason Christ redeemed us: that we might be one with God forever without any attachment to sin.
Holiness is necessary to enter God’s presence. The Epistle to the Hebrews says, “Strive for peace with all men, and for holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb.12:14). This holiness must be attained either on earth or through Purgatory. It finds its fulfillment in heaven. Universal Call to Holiness Though holiness is perfected in the next life, it is initiated here and we are called to persevere in faith, hope and charity until the end. Christ Himself gave this commandment to all men: “Be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). The Catechism teaches that all Christians, of whatever state in life, are called to pursue holiness (CCC 2012-2014). It is therefore not reserved to the canonized saints, nor the religious, nor the priests and bishops, but is for all of the baptized.
CCC 2012 through 2016 Catechism of the Catholic Church
The Communion of Saints
After confessing “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church,” we profess in the Creed belief in “the communion of saints.” Traditionally, this communion has been viewed as communion in spiritual goods: common possession by the faithful of the means of grace deposited by the Church and of the extraordinary gifts of grace bestowed upon the Church, and also through common participation of the faithful in the fruits of the prayers and good works of all the members of the Church. We are all interconnected by virtue of the one Spirit we share through our baptism. Pope Pius XII said in Mystici Corporis (1943): “There can be no good and virtuous deed performed by individual members of the Mystical Body of Christ which does not, through the communion of saints, redound also to the welfare of all” (p. 89). The sacred goods shared in this communion are identified by the Catechism as the communion of faith, of sacraments, of charisms, charity, and even of possessions. In short, every member of the Church has access to all the spiritual riches and goods of all the others, and all benefit from the sanctification of the other.
Communion between the Three States of the Church
In Devotional Life
In the Liturgy
Steps to Sainthood
Catholic Online Saints Resource USCCB