The Cult of Saints

Fr Henryk Misztal

The Year 2010 will probably bring the expected beatifications. One can ask about the motive of our awaiting for these beatifications and the reason for the cult of saints in the Church. Will we become better disciples of the great Poles, John Paul II and Fr Jerzy Popieluszko, through this solemn act of the Church or will we belong only to the group of their temporary fans?

The Cult of Saints in the teaching of the Church

It is worth remembering the reasons for the cult of saints in the Church if we want to answer these questions. In fact, the cult of saints has accompanied the Church since her beginnings although there were various distortions and misunderstandings. The theological justification of the cult of saints was dominated by two extreme tendencies. One of them was the desire to minimise or even eliminate the cult of saints by acknowledging it to be a form of Medieval piety or simply distraction from the fundamental cult of Christ, the only Mediator (a strong influence of Protestantism). The other tendency was to stress the significance of the cult of saints excessively. Undoubtedly, the number of new saints and the blessed has steadily increased during the recent pontificates. On the basis of the old tradition dating to the times of Christ the Church commends to the special and filial veneration of Christ’s faithful the Blessed Mary ever-Virgin, and calls her the Queen of All Saints. Furthermore, the Church supports the true and authentic cult of saints. The aims of the cult are God’s glory, strengthening the sanctification of the people of God, examples to follow and intercession before God (Canon 1186). The saints are subject to the interests of theological sciences such as asceticism, mysticism as well as medicine, psychology, history, iconography and even graphology. Their phenomenon initiates numerous researches, pious works, books, articles. ‘History shows that saints, guided by God's light, are the authentic reformers of the life of the Church and of society. As teachers with their words and witnesses, with their example, they can encourage a stable and profound ecclesial renewal because they themselves are profoundly renewed, they are in touch with the real newness: God's presence in the world… This comforting reality namely, that in every generation saints are born and bring the creativity of renewal constantly accompanies the Church's history in the midst of the sorrows and negative aspects she encounters on her path’ (Benedict XVI, the general audience on 13 January 2010).

Private and public cult

Referring to the effects of the expected beatifications it is fundamental to differentiate between private and public cult. Today also, on the one hand, the Church warns against publicly venerating people who are not entitled to that and on the other hand, the Church is happy about the true opinion of sanctity or martyrdom expressed in private cult. The latter is allowed in the mystery of the community of the saints, which we confess in our daily prayers, not only for anyone who died in the opinion of sanctity but also to all the dead and even the souls suffering in purgatory. We privately pray for them and we expect their intercession before God. We often ask our late parents or our dearest to intercede for us. Referring to the above-mentioned Servants of God millions of believers venerate them privately, directly after the martyr’s death of Fr Jerzy Popieluszko or after Pope John Paul II passed away to the Father’s House. Despite the fact that the opinion of sanctity is universal and publicly demonstrated private cult remains until the Church officially allows the public forms of cult through the act of beatification. Since the beatification is the papal permission to public cult, although limited to particular places or forms. The public cult of saints contains much more than the private cult. The public cult, expressed in the liturgical form, is the public veneration given to Triune God to whom these saints approached through their closer imitation of the holiness of Christ’s life or acceptance of the martyr’s death for him. The idea of close unity of the canonised with Christ makes them especially active members of the Mystical Body. The theological justification of the public cult of saints is the fact of their achieving salvation, i.e. glory in the heavenly kingdom, which the Church states in the act of beatification or canonisation. This is confirmed by the teaching of Vatican Council II that the Church is believed to be indefectibly holy (cf. Lumen gentium, 39) not only through the holiness of Christ as the Head but also through her members. Venerating saints we do not worship man as such but we worship Christ to whom man leads. Moreover, this understanding of the cult of saints allows public supplications on behalf of the Church for their intercession before God. Finally, saints entitled to public cult have bigger sociological meaning because the beauty of their Christian lives in various statuses, professions and circumstances in which every believer can find himself will be shown through liturgical celebrations and from the pulpit. ‘The Holy Spirit guards the Church and calls people to holiness for the present times’ (John Paul II). ‘Saints are initiators and creators of new styles and new forms of Christian life’ (Karl Rahner). After beatifications they are officially shown as patterns to follow and as our advocates before God.

Legal verification

No wonder that the Church, allowing the cult of saints or even recommending the cult of saints, demands thorough verification of this sanctity through century-honoured rules aiming at showing the beauty of this sanctity, its validity, messages to contemporary believers. Therefore, a beautified person is first of all a member of the Church who answered God’s calling and lived in close relationship with Christ, practising Christian virtues. The saint is presented by the Church, after being confirmed by God through miracles, as a special member of the Mystical Body, as the one who intercedes for those living in this world, as worthy of public cult that is lower than the cult due to God himself and as an example of truly Christian life. The Church takes care of her public cult of saints and guards its proper forms through the canon and liturgical law. Only after beatification various forms of the cult of saints are possible and through that the message of their sanctity is more widely realised. Churches, chapels and altars dedicated to the saints can be built. Societies and brotherhoods can be called into being. Spiritual privileges can be granted and there can be public prayers, processions, and the relicts of saints can be carried in solemn processions. Churches can be dedicated only to the canonised saints whereas as for the beatified saints – after receiving the permission of the Holy See (the Congregation for Divine Worship) or after the missal and breviary texts have been promulgated for the local Church. The solemn announcement in the form of beatification or canonisation gives the faithful the certainty that following saints and asking for their intercession they act according to the teaching of the Church, and following the example of saints we can expect their intercession before God. Introducing the new public cult (beatification) is a proof of the sanctification of the Church that is also being realised in our times, a proof of her youth, vividness, relationship with Christ. Saints of different statuses and professions are icons of Christ, having many colours and shades of love. Answering the question whether through this solemn act of the Church we will be better disciples of the great Poles, referring to John Paul II and Fr Jerzy Popieluszko, we can say that it depends on us but through their public cult we will have bigger opportunities to get to know their ways to sanctity and the certainty that we can publicly ask them to intercede for us.

"Niedziela" 6/2010

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: