Saints, Male and Female

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Saints, Male and Female

Saints (from sanctus, Latin for holy) fascinate many people because they embody a superior and transcendental ideal of life based on self-sacrifice and even loss of life through martyrdom (witness to the faith). Saints provide an example, a guide, an emulation for those who seek to live and die according to universal values and high ethical standards—far beyond any temporal or earthly satisfaction or meaning. Saints are believed to have direct intercession with God on behalf of the living. Many saints, male and female, sacrificed their lives for an ideal or fidelity to a cause, such as celibacy or religious belief. True saints are universally admired—even by those who may not be religious or venerate saints and may repute their miracles as nothing but superstitions—simply because of their exemplum or sacrifice for others.


In the early Christian tradition the faithful declared saints those who died of martyrdom. Subsequently, sainthood was not governed by a strict ecclesiastic process; instead, saints were declared through popular decree in a process controlled by the clergy or bishops. Indeed, storytellers such as Giovanni Boccaccio (see the tale of Ser Ciappelletto in the Decameron 1921 [1348–1353]) mocked the superficial and simplistic way in which saints were created by popular acclamation. In the modern era, or after the Council of Trent (1545–1563) and the Counter-Reformation, the process of sainthood has been strictly bound by rules, and control of the official process of beatification and canonization has been given to the Sacred Congregation of Rites (founded in 1588); as a result, the church has rescinded many saints from its official calendar and from the Litany of the Saints at Mass. The various Protestant denominations do not venerate saints as the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches do; they consider a saint anyone who is part of the body of Christ, as taught by St. Paul the Apostle (c. 10–c. 67 ce). The Anglican Communion considers itself both Catholic and Reformed and commemorates most of the saints of the Catholic Church; it considers as a saint someone who is regarded as pious and holy. It singles out the English prelate John Fisher (1469–1535) and the English statesman and author Thomas More (1478–1535), both of whom were executed by King Henry VIII (1491–1547) and canonized 400 years later by Pope Pius XI (1857–1939).

The other great religions, including Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism, all have a sort of belief in saints but not an official process of canonization as does the Catholic Church. In Judaism there is a tradition of tzadic, or the righteous one. The Talmud states that if there are thirty-six such tzadics living among the people, God will not destroy the world.

In Islam a saint is a wali, a friend of Allah. There is a belief that many great saints still inhabit the valley of Mohra Sharif in Pakistan where an annual great festival is held. There is no formal canonization of saints in Islam, but they are very popular with the faithful and are endowed with karamat, the performance of marvels, similar to Christian miracles. Cults of saints, especially pilgrimages to saints' tombs, represent a current that many of the stricter tendencies of orthodoxy (such as Wahhabism) reject. In Islam the cults of saints tend to revolve around the mystical tradition of Sufism, and also arise in popular, even folkloric, religious practices, which are more or less tolerated by the orthodox. The famous Sufi philosopher Muhyi ad-Din Ibn al-Arabi (1165–1240) from Andalusia, himself considered a saint, wrote two compendia about Andalusian saints, four of them women. The tombs of female saints, and other holy females, become pilgrimage points for women, affording one of the few opportunities for mass female worship and community within Islam. In popular religion saints can slide into the category of hermits and even nonhuman spirits.

Buddhism, Hinduism, and the other Asian religions have permanently influenced the religious practices of Europe and North America through mystical techniques, so much so that there are, for example, Catholic Buddhists—catholic mystics who use Buddhist practices.

Besides the official religions in the Caribbean, there is also Santeria (the way of the saints) or Regla de Ocha, La Regla Lucumi (lucumi being a Yoruba word meaning friend), as well as the oral tradition practiced by the Hispanic populations of the Americas. The latter—which varies from country to country but is practiced especially in Cuba and is present even in France and the Netherlands—developed after the slave trade from Africa and integrated the beliefs of the Yoruba and Bantu people with the Christian ones. Thus equivalencies between saint figures were created, such as Babalz Ayi and St. Lazarus, patron of the sick and leprous; Shangs and St. Barbara, patron of lightning, thunder, and artillery; Eleggua and St. Anthony, patron of roads and gates; and Oggzn and St. Peter, patron of fishermen and war. In Lucumi beliefs Olorun is the supreme god and creator of the universe, and the orishas are the saints.

In the Catholic Church modern saints include people who gave their entire life for the cause of the poor or indigents, such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910–1997). Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Skopje, Macedonia, she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her work with the poor of Calcutta and the entire world through the Missionaries of Charity, the order she founded in 1950, which eventually ran more than 500 missions in 100 countries. Known as the Saint of the Gutters because her mission was to aid the poorest of the poor, the sick, and the dying, Mother Teresa was beatified by Pope John Paul II (1920–2005) in 2003.

Another example of a modern saint is Edith Stein, or St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (1891–1942), a Jew who converted to Catholicism in 1921 and, inspired by the autobiography of St. Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582), became a Carmelite nun in 1933. She was executed with her sister Rosa by the Nazis in Auschwitz in 1942. Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948), though not Catholic or Christian, is considered by many to be a true saint because of his ideal of peace and nonviolence. The Anglican Church, meanwhile, commemorates such twentieth-century individuals and martyrs as Manche Masemola (d. 1928), Maximilian Kolbe (d. 1941), Lucian Tapiedi (d. 1942), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (d. 1945), Esther John (d. 1960), Martin Luther King, Jr. (d. 1968), Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna (d. 1969), Wang Zhiming (d. 1972), Janani Luwum (d. 1977), and Archbishop Oscar Romero (d. 1980).


In Christianity the conception of saint and sainthood underwent a natural evolution. Saints in early Christianity included all the martyrs of persecution under the Romans, the high point of this period occurring around 250 ce (with the saints including Bartholomew, Cecilia [d. c. 230], Agatha [d. c. 250], Sebastian [d. 288], Lucy [d. 304], Catherine of Alexandria [d. c. 305], and Methodious of Olympus [d. 311]). This period continued until the rule of Constantine (c. 274–337) (whose own mother was St. Helena [d. c 330]), who permitted Christians to practice their faith freely with the Edict of Milan (313). Subsequently, the fourth through sixth centuries feature saints who were either founders of religious orders or church fathers, including Ambrose (339–397), a doctor of the church who was present at the Council of Nicea (325), where, among other things, the birth of Jesus was fixed as being December 25; Jerome (c. 347–419 or 420), patron of librarians, who wrote the Life of St. Paulus the Hermit (c. 230–342) and translated the Bible into the Latin Vulgate; Benedict of Nursia (c. 480–547), considered the father of European monasticism; Augustine of Hippo (354–430), founder of the European church; Gregory the Great (c. 540–604), patron of choir boys and educators, eminent pope, and creator of the Gregorian chant; and numerous holy hermits who chose a life of penitence and privations while living in grottos and extremely isolated places.

Next was the period of evangelization and crusades. Major figures during this period included St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), St. Francis of Assisi (1181 or 1182–1226), and St. Dominic (c. 1170–1221), founders, respectively, of the Cistercian, Franciscan, and Dominican Orders out of which would arise other luminaries and saints such as St. Bonaventura (c. 1217–1274) and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). During this period a number of women mystics achieved prominence, such as St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179); Mechtilde of Magdeburg (1207–1282); St. Bridget of Sweden (c. 1303–1373); Julian of Norwich (1342–after 1416), an English mystic very popular in the twentieth century, who explored the female dimension of God and wrote Revelations of Divine Love; and St. Clare of Assisi (1194–1253), who was converted by St. Francis and founded the Poor Claires. A number of women mystics enriched the history of the church, such as St. Catherine of Siena (1347–1380), a brilliant theologian and doctor of the church, and patron of fire prevention; St. Catherine of Genoa (1447–1510), a visionary mystic and author, and patron of wives and widows; and St. Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582), a Spanish mystic and doctor of the church who spoke of the obscure type of revelations and founded the Discalced Carmelites.

In the modern era saints have assumed a more human face—away from the heroic-mythic figures of the past—and have been more involved with the hordes of suffering humanity throughout the world, assisting and educating the poor, the sick, the handicapped, and the lepers. The aforementioned Mother Theresa is the best example, but there are many others. For example, St. Katharine Drexel (1858–1955), a woman born into a rich Philadelphia family, took an early interest in Native Americans and African Americans and founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to work for this cause. She even donated her fortune for ministry of this cause, endowing schools for the poor, including Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans. Those under consideration for sainthood include people assassinated by political factions, such as Archbishop Oscar Romero (killed while saying a mass in 1980), the three Catholic nuns and a lay worker raped and murdered (1980), and the six Jesuit priests, their cook, and her daughter (killed in 1989), all in El Salvador. In September 2006 Leonella Sgorbati, a missionary sister born in Piacenza, Italy, who had worked in Africa for forty years, was shot in the back by unidentified gunmen near a hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia. As a martyr she fits the mold of those saints dying in the odor of sanctity.


The Catholic Church (through the papal bull Divino Afflatu [1911] of Pius X [1835–1914]) classified the feasts of saints of the New Testament—all the great figures of the Old Testament are saints—hierarchically in the following order:

  • Mary, the Blessed Virgin Mother of Jesus
  • the angels and archangels
  • St. John the Baptist, the precursor of the Messiah
  • St. Joseph, Mary's husband and Jesus' putative father
  • Sts. Peter and Paul and all the apostles, who witnessed the life of Christ and are above all the others
  • the four evangelists (each with a different symbol: John, an eagle; Luke, an ox; Matthew, an angel; and Mark, a lion), who with their writings testify to Christ's earthly life and miracles
  • martyrs, who gained eternal glory having given their life for the faith, not only during the ancient time of persecutions but in recent times as well
  • confessors and doctors of the church and founders of orders
  • virgins, penitent holy women, and widows.

Then there are all the rest, particularly the patron saints of countries, cities, towns, dioceses, and parishes and the moral saints, the protectors of categories of people either because of their activity or biography.

The church has a liturgical calendar of saints, contained in the Roman Missal, and a saint (or more than one saint) is associated with every day of the year; with every religious event concerning Mary, Jesus, Joseph, the Trinity, or the church itself; and with the liturgical seasons—Advent, Lent leading to Easter, Pentecost after the Resurrection, and the Ordinary Period. Saints are commemorated on the day of their death. The Legenda aurea (Golden legend) of Jacobus de Voragine (1228 or 1230–1298), a Dominican preacher beatified in 1816 by Pope Pius VII (1800–1823), has been a very popular source for narration on the official saints of the church and their legendary deeds. It begins with the Advent of the Lord, then covers St. Andrew the Apostle, St. Nicholas of Myra (d. c. 346), St. Lucy (d. 304), and so on, ending with Sts. Barlaam (d. 304; a type of Buddha) and Josaphat; St. Pelagius the Pope (d. 561); and the Dedication of the Church. The narrative emphasizes the church's teaching of the seven virtues; the ideals of chastity, poverty, and humility; and monastic life. The women saints represent a minority: Of the more than 200 saints mentioned, only forty-one are women and only five are married. Another text of the lives of the saints is the Acta Sanctorum (Acts of the saints), initiated by Jean de Bolland in 1643 and continued by the Jesuit Bollandists, which contains a general history of the saints from the beginning of Christianity to the sixteenth century. There are several martyrologies and, of course, the Bible and the apocryphal books of the New Testament provide stories about saints, Mary, Joseph, and the apostles.


One cannot underestimate the importance of the patron saints or protectors of countries, towns, cities, and orders and those moral saints who protect—because of their biography and hagiography—different categories of workers, professions, corporations, and general activities of every kind. Examples of the latter include Mary Magdalene, patron saint of repentant prostitutes (although she would be an apostle according to contemporary belief); St. Sebastian, patron of archers, athletes, and tapestry makers; St. Valentine, patron of lovers; St. Isidore of Seville, patron saint of computers, their users, computer technicians, and the Internet; St. Barbara, patron of lightning, artillery, bricklayers, and architects; St. Francis of Assisi, protector of animals and the environment, and patron saint of Italy; St. Thomas Becket, martyred in 1170 by King Henry II, patron of brush makers and coopers; St. Cecilia, patron of musicians; St. Luke, patron of painters, artists, and medical doctors; St. Matthew, patron of tax collectors and bankers; St. Januarius or San Gennaro, patron of volcanic eruptions and patron saint of Naples; St. Peter, patron of fishermen; St. Paul, patron of rope makers, basket makers, and writers; St. Lucy of Syracuse, patron of eyesight; St. Zita, patron of waitresses; St. Martha, patron of cooks; St. Brigid of Ireland, patron of dairy workers; St. Catherine of Alexandria, patron of philosophers; St. Apollonia, patron of dentists and dental diseases; the Italian-born American St. Mother Cabrini, patron of emigrants; St. Teresa of Ávila, patron of heart disease and headaches; St. Roch, patron of invalids and pestilence; St. Monica (mother of St. Augustine of Hippo), patron of married women; St. Honorius of Amiens, patron of bakers; St. Jude, patron of lost causes; St. Mary of Loreto, patron of aviators; and St. Thérèse de Lisieux, patron of missionary activities. Among other notable saints is St. Benedict the Moor (1526–1589), patron saint of African Americans, although he was born in Sicily to African slaves and freed at age eighteen and joined the Franciscans; he could not read or write but his wisdom and work was an exemplum to all. Mary the Blessed Virgin is, among other things, protector of pregnant women, moral confusion, sickness of soul, and every kind of ailment.

Many cities and countries in the Christian world have patron saints (and usually more than one) along with a corresponding feast day. In this category are included St. Patrick, patron saint of New York City; St. James the Great, Spain and Galicia; St. Elizabeth, Hungary and Portugal; St. Joseph, Croatia; St. Ambrose, Milan; St. John the Baptist, Florence (his image was coined on the gold florin); St. George, Great Britain; St. Thérèse, Lisieux; Louis IX, St. Louis, Missouri; St. Joan of Arc, France; St. Geneviève, Paris; St. Petronius, Bologna; St. Mark the Evangelist, Venice; St. John the Baptist, Canada; St. Andrew, Scotland, Russia, and Greece; St. Casimir, Poland and Lithuania; Sts. Cyril and Methodius (ninth-century martyrs), the Slavic countries; Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico; St. Rose, Lima, Peru; St. Anthony of Padua, Brazil; St. Francis Solano, Argentina; and St. Boniface, Germany. Mention must be made of the many cities and countries who bear the name of saints, such as Santa Barbara, San Diego, San Francisco, San Pedro, San Mateo, Santa Anita, San Antonio (and others in California and Texas because of the historical legacy of Mexico), St. Paul, and St. Petersburg in the United States; São Paulo in Brazil; Santiago in Chile and Cuba; San Juan in Puerto Rico; Santa Cruz in Bolivia; San Salvador in El Salvador; Santo Domingo in the Dominica Republic; and the islands of St. Thomas and St. Croix. The list is enormous in the Christian countries because of the popularity of the religion and popular traditions. The saints of the early twenty-first century are more global, however, and they reflect a world in transition and all those people who dedicated themselves to help in a small but exemplary way to alleviate the problems of the world so that countries on every continent have special saints.


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Brooke, Rosalind, and Christopher Brooke. 1984. Popular Religion in the Middle Ages: Western Europe, 1000–1300. London: Thames and Hudson.

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Jones, Terry H. "Patron Saints Index." Catholic Community Forum. Available from

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Payne, Robert. 1990. The Fathers of the Western Church. New York: Dorset Press. [Orig. pub. 1951.]

Voragine, Jacobus de. 1993. The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, trans. William Granger Ryan. 2 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Warrack, Grace, ed. 1914. Revelations of Divine Love, Recorded by Julian, Anchoress at Norwich, Anno Domini, 1373. London: Methuen.

Watkins, Basil, ed. 2002. The Book of Saints. 7th edition. London: A. & C. Black.

                                         Giuseppe Di Scipio