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Saints: who are they and why do they matter?

Saints: who are they and why do they matter?

As St Bernadette’s relics begin a two–month tour across Britain, Marianne Rozario explains the Catholic Church’s teaching on saints 07/09/2022

This week marks the beginning of a two–month tour of the relics of Saint Bernadette which are journeying on pilgrimage to fifty Roman Catholic Churches throughout England, Scotland, and Wales. But who are saints? What is a relic? And why does the Catholic Church hold them in such high regard? This explainer summarises Catholic teaching on these questions.  

Who is a saint? 

The word ‘saint’ is derived from the Latin word sanctus meaning ‘holy’, understood as set apart from the world. In general, it refers to all Christians who strive for a life of holiness. In the Catholic Church, a canonised saint is a human who after their death is officially recognised as having ‘practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace’[1] 

What is involved in the process of canonisation? 

Canonisation has a long tradition in the Catholic Church. In the first five centuries of Christian history, there was no formal process, and the recognising of saints was based on public acclaim. From the sixth to the twelfth century, the agreement of the local bishop was required before someone could be canonised. From the twelfth century, the bishop would furthermore collect eyewitness testimonies of those that knew the person and witnessed claimed miracles. If satisfied, that bishop could then seek the approval to the pope. 

Nowadays, there are several stages to a formal process. Firstly, the title ‘Servant of God’ is given to a person whose life is being investigated for official recognition for sainthood in the Catholic Church, usually five years after their death. Secondly, the person is given the title of ‘Venerable’, formally recognised by the pope as having lived a virtuous life. Thirdly, to be beatified – recognised as ‘Blessed’ – one miracle acquired through the candidate’s intercession is needed, while those killed for their faith are given the title ‘Blessed’ with no miracle required. Finally, to be officially recognised as a saint, a second miracle after beatification is required. A commission made up of theologians and scientists must verify these miracles.

Where does the Bible support the understanding of saints?  

Catholics believe that support for the devotion to saints can be found in Hebrews 12:22–24 which encourages Christians to approach saints in heaven alongside the angels, God the judge, and Jesus the mediator. It speaks of ‘the assembly and church of the firstborn who have been enrolled in heaven’ and ‘spirits of righteous ones who have been made perfect’. Similarly, in Revelation 8:3–4, an image is depicted of the smoke of incense going up to heaven with the prayers of the saints from the hand of an angel before God; an image of how the intercession of saints work.[2] 

What does saints as intercessors and models of virtue mean?  

The Catholic Church believes that through the process of canonisation, saints are given by God to be ‘models and intercessors’ to the Church on Earth.[3] As intercessors, saints mediate the spiritual and temporal realms.[4] They are able to communicate with ordinary worshippers and take their requests into the spiritual realm. 

Saints are also models of holiness and virtue for those on Earth to imitate. They have been described as ‘those men and women who have gone before us, marked by the sign of faith, and have been recognised as martyrs or people of heroic virtue’.[5] The Catholic Church sees ‘virtue’ as ‘a habitual and firm disposition to do the good’.[6] Virtues are not just attributes or characteristics of a person. Rather, in Catholicism, ‘the goal of a virtuous life is to become like God’[7] or as Ephesians 5:1 puts it ‘Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children’.  

What is a relic? 

A relic is ‘a part of the physical remains of a saint after their death, or an object which has been in contact with their body’. In honouring or venerating relics, Catholics seek to remember that they are not simply human bones but ‘bones that belonged to individuals touched by the transcendent power of God’.[8]  

The veneration of relics is a practice dating back to the early years of Christianity.[9] Early examples include the veneration of Saint Polycarp. The early Church Fathers were united in their approval of relics, but were careful to note that the veneration of relics is not equal to worship which is only owed to God, but instead a lesser form of honouring. The Catholic Church continues to affirm this position.  

Non–Christian cultures and religions also practice some kinds of relic veneration – for example, Athenians venerated the remains of Oedipus and Theseus, and the relics of the Prophet Mohammed are kept in a special wing of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul despite contemporary Islam not sanctioning the veneration of relics today. Still today, Buddhists venerate the remains of Buddha – ten original sets of relics from the Buddha’s remains were redistributed into 84,000 stupas – and Hindus consider the footprints, or padukas, of great teachers to be sacred.  

Example: Saint Bernadette 

Bernadette Soubirous was born in 1844 to a poor family in France. At the age of fourteen she is believed to have seen the Virgin Mary eighteen times between February and July 1858 in a cave on the outskirts of Lourdes. This series of Apparitions – apparitions understood as a heavenly being making themselves known in a personal revelation to those on earth – were authenticated in 1866 by the Bishop of Tarbes. Bernadette lived out her religious vocation with the community of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers until her death at the age of 35, and was canonised a saint in 1933.  

Saint Bernadette’s visions led to the founding of the shrine of Lourdes which inspires generations of people to journey on pilgrimage there each year. Estimates suggest that around 5 million pilgrims visit Lourdes each year, with about 200 million pilgrims having visited since 1860. The Marian shrine – of or relating to Mary the mother of Jesus – is a popular pilgrimage destination for those with special devotions to Our Lady and those seeking miraculous healings.  Tradition holds that the shrine has a spring of water with miraculous healing properties. The 70th officially recognised miraculous healing was announced in 2018, however there are over 7,000 accounts of miraculous recoveries attributed to the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes.[10] 

The tour of Saint Bernadette’s relics to England, Scotland and Wales over the next two months will be, firstly, an opportunity for the Catholic community in the United Kingdom, especially those not physically able to go to Lourdes, to pray in front of the relics asking for the intercession of Saint Bernadette. Lourdes is seen by many as a place of healing – spiritual, emotional, psychological and physical – and those that visit the relics of Saint Bernadette and ask for her intercession will be hoping that those gifts will be extended to them. 

Secondly, the tour of her relics serves as an opportunity for the faithful to grow in virtue through the witness of Saint Bernadette’s life. In particular, Catholics hold that Saint Bernadette demonstrated the virtue of obedience throughout her life – obedience to Mary by following her requests to return to visit her and building a chapel on the site of the visions, and obedience to God in the face of those not believing her visions.  

Through the tour of her relics, there will inevitably be an increased awareness of St Bernadette’s life, the way that she models the virtue of obedience for living Catholics, and the significance of saints in the spirituality of many Christians globally. For the Catholic Church here in Britain, this unique opportunity is a blessing that I hope can refresh, renew and reignite faith – and perhaps foster a curiosity in those with little understanding of saints and relics.


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[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1997, para. 828

[2] The Bible Supports Praying to the Saints | Catholic Answers

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1997, para. 828

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1997, para. 956

[5] Gribble, 2011, p. 18

[6] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1997, para. 1803

[7] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1997, para. 1803

[8] People on the Move, N° 99 (

[9] The History Of Relics And Why They Matter (

[10] The 70th miracle: Lourdes healing officially declared supernatural | Catholic News Agency

Photo by ldambies on Shutterstock

Marianne Rozario

Marianne Rozario

Dr Marianne Rozario is Senior Researcher and Projects Lead at Theos. She is the co–author of Ashes to Ashes: beliefs, trends, and practices in dying, death, and the afterlife. She has a PhD in International Relations exploring the notion of Catholic agency in international society through the University of Notre Dame Australia, and a MA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews. She is a Lecturer on the MA Social Justice and Public Service in the Faculty of Business and Law at St Mary’s University.

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Posted 7 September 2022

Catholicism, Saint


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