Q. The Bible, in Colossians and Revelation, refers to Christians as saints. St. Paul writes to “the saints and faithful brethren in Colossae.” But we usually only refer to those who have been canonized as “saints?” What is the difference?
A. The letter to the Colossians and the Book of Revelation refer to living Christians as saints. To speak of Christians as belonging to the “communion of saints” is biblical, and consistent with Church teaching.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1475, refers to the Church on earth, the Church in purgatory, and the Church in heaven as “the communion of saints.” Paragraph 946 of the Catechism says that “the Church is the communion of saints,” and the communion of saints the Church. This sense of the term saints can be understood or translated as “the holy ones,” or “those set apart by God.” On the other hand, from the first decades of the Church, martyrs and other holy and deceased Christians were revered widely after their death, and they were referred to in a unique way as saints. While not diminishing the scriptural use of the term “saints,” it’s clear that the early Church revered some particular Christians who were known for holiness, and referred to them as saints. In the first and second century, even, their relics were venerated, their intercession was sought in prayer, as described in Rev. 8: 3-4 and the writings of the Church Fathers, and churches were named for them. Those early Church saints were “canonized,” according to the writings of the Church fathers.
The Greek word “canon,” refers to a “standard” or “measuring rod.” And that is, in part, what the canonized saints are: measuring rods of the Christian life. In fact, the Church canonizes a saint only when she believes that his life is worthy of imitation and emulation along the path to Christian holiness. So those whom we call “Saints” in a formal sense, like St. Teresa of Kolkata, or St. Joseph, or the Blessed Mother, are those whose lives the Church has deemed are particularly worthy of veneration and imitation, and those whose intercession from heaven we seek in our lives. But this does not diminish the fundamental reality that we in the Church are all the “sancti”— the saints—the holy ones of God. Our call is to follow after the example of those who have gone before us, in faith, and devotion, and charity, growing closer to Jesus in holiness.
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