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For other uses, see Saint (disambiguation).

In general, the term Saint refers to someone who is exceptionally virtuous and holy. It can be applied to both the living and the dead and is an acceptable term in most of the world's popular religions. The Saint is held up by the community as an example of how we all should act, and his or her life story is usually recorded for the edification of future generations.

The process of officially recognizing a person as a saint, practiced by some churches, is called canonization, though many Protestant groups use the less formal, broader usage seen in Scripture to include all who are faithful.



The term Saint is derived from the Latin Sanctus meaning “Holy”. This is a direct translation from the Greek word άγιος (hagios) also meaning “Holy”. In its original scriptural usage it simply means “Holy” or “Sanctified”. In this form it can be applied to a “Holy” person, a place (άγιον όρος; - The Holy Mountain), a thing, such as Scripture itself (αγιογράφικα - Holy Writing), or even God (άγιον πνεύμα; - The Holy Spirit). But very soon the early Christians began to using the term “Saint” more narrowly to refer to a specific, exemplary individual. (For a lexical explanation, see Liddel & Scott. [1])

The earliest known occurrence of άγιος as "Saint" seems to be in The Shepherd of Hermas, chapter 5 (or 13, depending on how chapters are counted), verse 2. "The Shepherd" was authored at about the same time as 2 Peter.

Short form

Abbreviation for the term Saint is usually “St.” In cases where multiple Saints are referenced SS. is the norm.


Some theologians believe that many people venerated as Saints never actually existed. The polite term for such "Saints" is ahistorical. Sorting out exactly which Saints are ahistorical is difficult, because of the larger difficulty of proving a negative: the absence of independent records of a Saint's existence doesn't prove she or he never existed; indeed there are no specific records of the existence of many people who lived before the 20th century. The Acta Sanctorum (hagiographical work) of the Bollandists forms a major part of the historiography of named Saints.

There are a large number of Christian saints with what appear to be pagan names. Most likely they were pagans who converted to Christianity and subsequently became Saints. However, it is possible that some pre-Christian deities (especially in Rome's area) were accidentally adopted as saints. It is thought that some cults were “Christianized” in a fairly direct manner. The basis for this is usually a similarity of names. For example, it is now commonly asserted that Saint Brigid was based on the Celtic goddess Brigid. The goddess was popular long before Christianity reached Ireland. Another possibility is the melding of the actual life of the Saint with myths related to pre-Christian gods and heroes (see Comparative religion). There are some striking parallels to the events portrayed in the lives of certain saints and fables such as Androcles and the Lion.

Definition specific to religion


Roman Catholicism

In the Roman Catholic church, the title of Saint - with a capital 'S' - refers to a person who has been formally canonized (officially recognized) by the Church. This takes place sometime after the person’s death and by this definition, never refers to a living person (Although there is a single recognised exception to this: the thief crucified next to Jesus prior to His death, to whom He promised that he would be that very day with Him in heaven). Formal Canonization is a lengthy process often taking many years, even centuries. The process includes a thorough investigation of the individual who has been put forth as a candidate for Sainthood. This investigation typically is concerned with examining and confirming (or disproving) any number of visions or miracles that may have been attributed to the person in question, or of the general holiness or specific good deeds that he or she may have done while alive. It should be noted, however, that the Church places special weight on those miracles or instances of intercession that happened after the individual died and which are seen to be demonstrative of the Saint's continued special relationship with God after death. Also, by this definition there are many people in heaven who have not been formally declared as Saints (most typically due to their obscurity and the involved process of formal canonization) but who may nevertheless generically be referred to as saints (lowercase 's').

Contrary to popular belief, Saints are not worshiped - this would violate the Commandments - but they are asked for help or to pray for a person. Saints are usually considered to be specific intercessors for specific problems as well. The term Patron Saint usually defines this purpose. Once a person has been declared a Saint, the body of the Saint is considered to be holy. In past centuries, the bones of saints were distributed as holy artifacts. The ring on the finger of Catholic bishops contains the relic of a Saint. In modern times, however, there is a growing trend to show respect for the body of a Saint by leaving it alone and buried.

Stages of Canonization in the Roman Catholic Church
  Servant of God   →   Venerable   →   Blessed   →   Saint  

Eastern Orthodoxy

In the Eastern Orthodox Church a Saint is defined as anyone who is currently in Heaven, whether recognized here on earth, or not. By this definition, Adam and Eve, Moses, the various Prophets, the Angels and Archangels are all given the title of "Saint". After a careful process of deliberation by a synod of Bishops, there is a formal service of Glorification in which a Saint is recognized by the entire church.

The Orthodox believe that God reveals his Saints to us, often by answered prayers and other miracles. For the Orthodox, canonization often happens after individuals have already begun petitioning an uncanonized saint, sometimes churches on a local level have conducted a local canonization. There are numerous small local followings of countless saints that have not yet been recognized by the entire Orthodox church.

Such was the case with the sainthood of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his family. At first the family was canonized as martyrs by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in 1981, after which many believers in Russia began to pray to the Tsar and his family. Miracles were reported, including one miraculous icon which prompted an immediate local canonization. In 2000, the Tsar and his family were officially canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church.

A strong proponent of a saint's canonization can be a miraculous condition of their relics (although it is not in itself alone considered sufficient). In Orthodox countries it is often the custom to re-use graves after 3 to 5 years because of the limited space. Bones are respectfully washed and placed in an ossuary, often with the person's name written on the skull. Occasionally when a body is exhumed something miraculous occurs to reveal the person's Sainthood. There have been numerous occurrences where the exhumed bones suddenly give off a wonderful fragrance, like flowers; or sometimes the body is incorrupted, just as it was on the day the person died, despite having not been embalmed (traditionally the Orthodox do not embalm the dead) and having been buried for 3 years.

The reason relics are considered sacred is because, for the Orthodox, the separation of body and soul is unnatural. Body and soul both comprise the person, and in the end, body and soul will be reunited; therefore, the body of a saint shares in the “Holiness” of the soul of the saint.

Because the Church shows no true distinction between the living and the dead (the Saints are alive in Heaven), the Orthodox treat the saints as if they were still here. They venerate them and ask for their prayers, and consider them brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. Saints are venerated and loved and asked to intercede for our salvation, but it should be clearly understood that they are not Worshiped; their holiness is from God who alone is worthy of Adoration. As Christ says in the Gospels, "Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve." (Matt 4:10). The relics of Saints are highly respected, even more so than the Roman Catholics. As a general rule only clergy will touch relics in order to move them or carry them in procession, however, in veneration the faithful will kiss the relic to show love and respect toward the saint. Every altar in every Orthodox church contains relics, usually of martyrs. The Church building interiors are covered with the Icons of saints.

In the Orthodox Church, baptism is the moment one is born again into Christ. The person entering the baptismal font is not the same person that emerges. It is for this reason that the person is given a new name; always the name of a saint. What is proper is that the person no longer goes by his old name because that person is dead, but uses the new name exclusively. It is also common that instead of birthdays, the person celebrates his Saints Day, the day on the Calendar of Saints ascribed to that particular saint.

In Orthodox tradition some saints are known by the title Equal-to-apostles in recognition of their role in evangelising countries.


In many Protestant churches, the word is used more generally to refer to anyone who is a Christian. This is similar in usage to St. Paul's numerous references. In this sense, anyone who is within the Body of Christ is “Holy” because of their relationship with Jesus. However, high-church Anglicans and Episcopalians use the term "saint" similarly to the manner in which Catholics use it.

Latter-day Saints

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints follow the Protestant tradition described above, referring to themselves as "Latter-day Saints", or simply "Saints". This is usually preferred over the nickname "Mormons".


Islam has, traditionally, had a central place for saints within its cosmology and saints [Arabic: awliya--literally, Friends of Allah (singular: wali)] are mentioned in verses of the Qur'an. Although there is no formal canonization process in Islam, there do exist traditions of the Prophet (hadith) and sayings of the scholars of Islam about what the qualities of a true saint are. These include soundness of faith (aqidah), a strict adherence to the Prophetic traditions (sunnah) and Shar'iah Law, an upright moral character, the performance of charismatic marvels (Ar.: karamat) and, crucially, the acknowledgment by consensus of the orthodox that such and such a person is a saint. i.e. if the Muslim masses consider someone a Saint, he or she is one. Theoretically too a saint is said to have the ability to perform any miracle which the Prophet performed and there is also a spiritual hierarchy of saints in Islam with the Qutb or Ghawth (Pole or Succour) at the apex. This hierrarchy is detailed in the work of the great Andalusian Sufi Muhyuddin Ibn al-Arabi, who is considered one of the great Saints of Islam, as well as many others. Indeed, amongst orthodox, traditional, Muslims, those referred to as [Sufis] by Orientalist scholars of Islam are considered Saints and the two terms are virtually synonyms. Traditionally, the veneration of saints and tombs or shrines in Islam is very widespread and includes all geographical areas of the Muslim world, including the conservative Arabian peninsula. Saints are believed to have a power of intercession with God (Allah), and thus the ability to perform miracles and to give power or blessings known as baraka.

In most Muslim countries there are religious festivities associated with saints, such as Urs festivals in India and Pakistan or the annual Mawlid in Egypt. A great Urs is yearly held in the valley of MohraSharif where great saints still live. On these days, the local saint(s) is/are venerated, and blessings are expected. Believers are nevertheless careful to distinguish between the blessings of the prophets (particularly Moses, Jesus and Muhammad) and those of the saints.

Saints are an important component of popular Islam and are associated with Sufism, which includes many of the mystical branches of Islam. Sufism has several orders with precepts (tarika) for students (murid) who seek to follow the teachings of a saint. Although saints are acknowledged by many sufis, Sufism distances itself from the more animistic and cultic aspects of the veneration of saints, which includes, as in popular Christianity, all types of religious paraphernalia and popular rituals.


The closest notion in Judaism is the tzadik, a righteous person. The Talmud says that at any time at least 36 tzaddikim are living among us: they are anonymous, but it is for their sake that the world is not destroyed. The Talmud and the Kabbalah offer various ideas about the nature and role of these 36 tzaddikim. The term can also be used generically to mean any righteous or saintly person.


Saints are also recognized in Hinduism. However, unlike the Roman Catholic or Orthodox Church, no formal process is required to acknowledge a person as a saint.

  • Tukaram was a great saint who was believed to have performed miracles and was a devotee of Krishna.
  • Sant Shiri Nunuram Sahib(1898 - 1973) , A great Saint Whose Aashram is situated in Islamkot city of Sindh Province in Pakistan.

See also sant and Hindu Gurus and Saints


The Dhamma or path of purification as outlined by the Buddha leads the disciple eventually to the status of an ariya, a noble-hearted person, of which there are four levels of increasing sanctity and holiness. These are, sotapanna or ‘stream-winner’; sakadagami or ‘once-returner’; anagami or ‘non-returner’; and finally arahant or ‘Holy One’ – a human being who is free from all defilements. Arahant is synonymous with Buddha, a fully enlightened human being, and is frequently used as an epithet of the Buddha Gotama in the liturgy of Southern Buddhism. An arahant may be considered as both a saint and a gnani or Gnostic; somebody who possesses transcendental spiritual knowledge.

Other religions

In many of the more obscure religions of the world, a saint is a man or a woman who has a direct personal link or connection with God and who can put a person on the way back to God. Many gurus overtly or covertly claim to be saints, which followers may believe to be true, even if the objective evidence doesn't match a formal definition of a saint.

In the modern religion of Discordianism, sainthood is given very easily. As one of the founders, Kerry Thornley, once said, "To be a saint you don't need to do anything special, you just need to suffer a lot". Discordians don't really agree on who (or what) are saints, but fictional characters are considered "saintlier" than real people, and insanity always helps. Yossarian from Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Don Quixote, and Bokonon from Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle all appear on the Principia Discordia's list of saintly folk.

Santeria - Voodoo

The veneration of Catholic saints forms the basis of the Cuban Santería religion. In Santería, saints are syncretised with Yoruban deities, and are equally worshipped in churches (where they appear as saints) and in Santería religious festivities, where they appear as deities (orishas); however, this practice is condemned by the Roman Catholic Church.

Santeria, Haitian Vodoun, Brazilian Umbanda and other similar religions adopted the Roman Catholic Saints, or the images of the saints, as representations of their own spirits/deities or 'Orishas' in Santeria and 'Lwa' in Vodoun. Although there are many similarities between Vodoun and Santeria, they are different in respect to origin and language (Vodou is French, Santeria is Spanish). The adoption of Catholic Saints was fairly common in the religions that were adapted by the slaves in the New World. It can be understood as a more recent example of the absorption of pre-Christian elements into European "Catholicism" — although with Santeria and Vodoun the native religion seems to be more dominant. Different regions of the world where Catholicism is practiced have varying ways of practicing their faith.

The Catholic Church has not always condemned the practices of these "religions" or sub-sects (although there were brief local movements against Vodoun by the Church in Haiti). Perhaps the adoption of the Catholic saints is more of a testament to the durability and adaptability of religions like Vodoun. It is remarkable that Vodoun practitioners can consider themselves Catholic and Vodounists at the same time. Perhaps it is more realistic to say that elements of Catholicism were adapted into Vodoun and Santeria.

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