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Why Does the Word ‘Saint’ Have Multiple Meanings in the Catholic Faith?

 

A Protestant listener named Sean asks Father Dave for some clarification about saints in the Catholic Church. “As I read the Epistles, Paul always mentions saints as living, breathing followers of Christ that are right there with him, and [Catholics] tend to talk about saints as first you have to die and then meet a couple other requirements…I’m hoping you can help me reconcile [that],” he asks.

Father Dave reminds us that the teachings and traditions of the Church are not based purely on Scripture, but also “what the Holy Spirit has been revealing to us over these last 2000 years.” He continues saying that, “The Catholic Church would say [that] among the communion of saints are not just people who have died and have been canonized. The communion of saints, in its broadest term, is all God’s children, all believers.”

However, arguably the most common usage of the word “saint” refers to those who have been canonized after death. Father Dave makes sure to clarify that our belief is not limited to just that definition, but that a saint is “one who is in heaven with God” and goes far beyond our list of canonized saints. 

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He uses a sports analogy to help explain why some saints are held in a special regard and canonized. “People in the NBA would agree that there are many more great players who have ever lived and played the game than the ones that we’ve chosen to hang their jerseys from the rafters and retire their numbers,” Father Dave says. He says how a professional sports team or league finds value “in highlighting particular greats that are above and beyond, and not just for the sake of saying ‘this person is a better player’ but that so when people walk into the arena, they look up at that number and they are inspired…they are happy to be here and part of this fan base.” This is a similar attitude as to why the Church identifies those who are “for sure in heaven with God” as models for us.

Father Dave also notes that some other Christian churches differ in their theology regarding eternal life. Some Christian traditions believe that you undoubtedly gain eternal life once you become a believer in Jesus, while the Catholic Church teaches that one can “potentially lose or refuse our offer of grace” through mortal sin. Because of this, it’s not a given that every Catholic is definitely in heaven with God. 

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“We believe that, then it follows that we would sort of need some way, if we’re going to hang the jersey, to vet that person,” he says. That vetting is the thorough process in which the Church canonizes a Saint.