What is a Saint?

We have all heard the word “Saint” used often throughout our lives, but many do not know what a Saint actually is, what a person must do to become a Saint, or how it is determined someone is truly a Saint. Below we review what a TRUE Saint really is.

Two Types of Virtues

In order to understand what a Saint is, we must first understand what a “virtue” is. Virtue is basically the excellence or perfection of a good habit. Our Lord has given us many, many examples of virtues throughout Scripture as an example to us that we should imitate them. There are two categories of virtues; the first category being “good habits” that Our Lord recommended we practice regularly; these include meekness (i.e. patience, humbleness and humility), chastity (i.e. virginity and modesty), poverty, almsgiving, obedience, and asceticism (i.e. self-denial, poverty and self-discipline). These “good habit” virtues can be practiced by anyone of any lifestyle, though historically we see these virtues are practiced to perfection by those who dedicate their lives to the religious life (i.e. priests, nuns etc).

The second type of virtue is called Martyrdom, which is defined as “The voluntary endurance of death for the Catholic faith, or for any article thereof, or for the preservation of some Christian virtue, or for some other act of virtue relating to God.” (A Catholic Dictionary (1958)). The virtue of Martyrdom is not something “practiced” like the first category of virtues we describe above; rather Martyrdom is simply giving one’s life for the faith.

Regarding the second type of virtue, Martyrdom, we note here that it is unique among the other virtues in that anyone who dies for the faith may be saved for this virtue alone without having practiced the other virtues we mention above (though it is highly likely that someone who dies for the faith also practices the other virtues during their lifetime).

It is extremely important to note here that it has always been a teaching of the Catholic Church that becoming a Saint through Martyrdom may also apply to an unbaptized person and thereby allow them to become justified and attain heaven (which is called Baptism of Blood). We know this because Our Lord guarantees us this in Scripture. For example:

“Every one therefore that shall confess me before men, I will also confess him before my Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 10:32

“He that findeth his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for me, shall find it.” Matthew 10:39

Heroic Virtue

Aside from Martyrdom which is automatically considered heroic, all the other virtues we mention above become “heroic virtues” when a person performs them with uncommon promptitude, ease, and pleasure, from supernatural motives and without human reasoning, with self-abnegation and full control over his natural inclinations. A heroic virtue, then, is a habit of good conduct that has become a second nature, a new motive power stronger than all corresponding inborn inclinations, capable of rendering easy a series of acts each of which, for the ordinary man, would be beset with very great, if not insurmountable, difficulties.

Definition of a Saint

Now that we understand what virtues and “heroic virtues” are, the definition of a Saint will make more sense to us. Referencing “A Catholic Dictionary” (1958), we see “Saint” defined as, “One whose holiness of life and heroic virtue have been confirmed and recognized by the Church’s official processes of beatification and canonization.”

So to give a brief summary to this point, a Saint is someone who, after thorough investigation, is proven to have lived a holy life and practiced heroic virtue (through either the good habits we mention above or through Martyrdom). The investigation processes to prove a person practiced one or more of these virtues are called Beatification and Canonization, which we will discuss below.

Titles of Candidates

The process for determining if an openly holy person is a Saint starts after their death. After a person’s death normally many years are allowed to pass before any beatification process is considered. We will see why below. Under normal circumstances, if the bishop of a diocese recognizes a member of a local parish as one who practiced heroic virtues (or was martyred), the bishop may compile information on the candidate in preparation for opening a cause for beatification with the Congregation of Rites (a group of judges consisting of Cardinals in Rome). A title is then given to the candidate in question depending where they are in the beatification process:


  1. Servant of God – After 5 years have elapsed since death, and after the Bishop of the diocese officially opens a cause for beatification, the candidate may publicly be called “Servant of God”.
  2. Venerable – After the Congregation of Rites reviews the case presented by the diocesan bishop and determines it has merit, some initial steps are completed and a decree is issued, which gives the Servant of God the new title of “Venerable”.
  3. Blessed – Once two first class miracles through the intercession of the Venerable have been canonically investigated and approved, this together with a Decree of Heroic Virtues is passed to the Holy Father who decides on whether the process of beatification should take place. Once the ceremony of beatification takes place, the Venerable is given a new title of “Blessed”.
  4. Saint - Once two additional miracles are performed through the intercession of the Blessed AFTER the beatification ceremony, and these additional miracles are canonically investigated and approved, the Holy Father may perform the canonization ceremony, after which the Blessed is given the final title of “Saint”.

The Requirement for Miracles

After reading about Titles of Candidates above, you may first be wondering about the requirement for miracles for Blesseds and Saints. This is what makes the lives of these Saints so fascinating and unique among all other people throughout the world! If you look at the writings on the lives of the Saints over the last 2000 years, you will notice repeated mention of miraculous phenomena associated with the Saints. A quick list of some of the miracles that have been written of repeatedly in the lives of the Saints, century after century include:


  • Incorruptible

    -Many, many Saints throughout history have remained free of decay for years, even centuries after death.

  • Raising others from the Dead

    – This is found in writings of many lives of the Saints over the centuries just as we see Our Lord and St. Peter had done in Scripture.

  • Odor of Sanctity

    – a pleasant fragrance emitting from the Saint while alive, or even after being dead for centuries.

  • Prophecy

    – Accurate foretelling of events as we see throughout Scripture.

  • Mystical Fasts

    – The phenomena of living on the Holy Eucharist alone for months and even years at a time under 24 hour supervision.

  • Stigmata

    – The phenomena where a Saint contains the same wounds of Our Lord throughout their life, which never heal and bleed on certain days and at certain hours.

  • Walking on water

    – We see in the writings of the Saints that many were seen to walk on water in front of crowds of people, just as Our Lord did.


It is important to note that these first class miracles are ONLY seen among Saints. There are many, many other miracles seen in writings of lives of the Saints which we discuss in detail on our Miracles Page. Note the miracles required for beatification of a Saint must be first class miracles, which are obvious interventions of God against the laws of nature. First class miracles are always astounding, undeniable, unfakable miracles associated with the person, and do not include claims of personal miracles that can’t be proven. These first class miracles are REQUIRED for beatification, and this is a sign we receive from God which tells us whether or not someone is TRULY a Blessed or a Saint. Many of these miracles only occur after death, hence the reason for the intentional delay before starting the beatification process.

Two Types of Saints

Below we discuss the processes involved in determining if someone is truly a Saint. Before we do, we note there are two types of holy people based on what virtues they practiced:

  • Martyrs

    – These are Saints who underwent the heroic virtue of Martyrdom.

  • Confessors

    – These are Saints who were not Martyred, but rather practiced the other heroic virtues we mention above throughout their lives.

The Beatification Process

We will now briefly explain the beatification process of a Confessor (a Non-Martyr). The process first starts with recognition of a person who clearly lead a holy life, and who is known to have practiced heroic virtues throughout his/her life. After this person’s death, if the Bishop of a diocese feels this person possibly lead the life of a Saint, he may submit a request to the Congregation of Rites in Rome so this person may be investigated and possibly recognized for the holy life he or she lead.

A brief summary of the process of beatification (codified in the 12th century) is as follows:

Beatification for Confessors (Non-Martyrs)

  1. The bishop of the diocese compiles information on a holy person he wishes to have considered for beatification. Information such as reputation of sanctity and miracles, and writings from the candidate must be gathered to prove the candidate did indeed practice heroic virtues and did not live, act or teach contrary to Scripture.
  2. This information is sent to Rome, to the Congregation of Rites (an assembly of Cardinals) for review.
  3. The information is reviewed in depth. If nothing contrary to faith and morals is found in the writings of the servant of God, a decree is published, authorizing further action and discussion.
  4. The Congregation of Rites vote for the appointment of the candidate. Approvals must be signed by the Pope which then approves the public title "Venerable" for the candidate.
  5. A petition is sent to local Bishop asking for fame of sanctity and miracles. The bishop compiles this information and sends to the Congregation of Rites.
  6. The Congregation of Rites reviews to see if claims appear valid. The main question regarding validity is, is there evidence that the venerable servant of God practiced virtues both theological and cardinal, and in a heroic degree?
  7. Miracles now remain to be proven. Two first class miracles are required in the case the practice of virtues in the heroic degree has been proved, in both ordinary and Apostolic inquiries or processes by eyewitnesses. Three first class miracles are required if the eyewitnesses were found only in the ordinary processes, or four first class miracles are required if the virtues were proven only by hearsay witnesses. The discussion of the particular miracles proceeds in exactly the same way and in the same order as that of the virtues.
  8. A meeting of the Congregation of Rites must then take place and proof of the miracles which God performed through the intercession of this candidate must then be proved and then approved by the Pope.
  9. When both virtues and miracles are proven, and the Pope gives final approval, a Pontifical Brief is issued permitting the public veneration of the beatified person now known as “Blessed”.

Beatification for Martyrs

  1. For Martyrs, the letters sent by the Bishop call for an immediate investigation into the fact of Martyrdom, its motive, and the particular miracles alleged. The miracles associated with the Martyr are discussed in the same meetings that deal with the fact and the motive of the Martyrdom.
  2. If the required miracles through the intercession of the Martyr are not of the first class; those of the second class suffice. On some occasions the decision as to miracles has been entirely dispensed with due to the nature of Martyrdom.
  3. The Beatification process followed for confessors is then followed as described above.

Veneration vs. Worship

You will notice Step 9 of the Beatification Process above mentions “permission of public veneration” of the beatified holy person. Here we must make it very clear that veneration means admiration, devotion or respect. It does NOT mean worship, adoration or honor, as we know worship, adoration and honor are reserved for God alone. Those who attempt to state otherwise are incorrect.

The Canonization Process

The canonization of Confessors or Martyrs may be started as soon as two additional miracles are reported to have been worked through the beatified person’s intercession (after the pontifical permission of public veneration as described above). At this stage it is only required that these two additional first class miracles worked after the permission awarding a public veneration be discussed in three meetings of the congregation. The discussion proceeds in the ordinary way; if the miracles be confirmed another meeting is held. The Pope then issues a “Bull of Canonization” in which he not only permits, but commands, the public veneration of the Saint.

Many stages are involved with beatification and canonization processes, usually taking many years to complete once started. Early Saints may not have gone through the same processes above as these processes were not officially codified in the early centuries of the Church.

The Purpose of Beatification and Canonization

So what is the purpose of the beatification and canonization processes? Here we give two simple answers:

First, the beatification and canonization processes allow these holy, devout, heroic wonder workers to be known to the rest of the world, so we all may see what they’ve done, how they've lived, and so we can learn from them and imitate them. The writings on lives of the Saints give us plenty of information on how the Saints lived their lives and what heroic virtues they practiced and are quite fascinating to read about. A great summary of these writings can be found compiled in Ann Ball’s two books named “Modern Saints Book 1” and “Modern Saints Book 2”, available at TAN Books (www.tanbooks.com)

Second, the general purpose of beatification or canonization is to specify to the entire Church whether an individual CAN be venerated (beatification) or MUST be venerated (canonization). In addition, beatification may or may not be a universal decree (applying to the entire Church) where canonization is universal and the decree binds the entire Church.

Saints in Our Day

Some may ask if there are Saints living in our day. Since Saints have lived in every century since the time of Christ, there is every reason to expect there are Saints living around us. Looking at the "Modern Saints" books we reference above shows many Saints lived throughout the 20th century. It is also important to note the Saints in these books are recognized Saints, meaning we know about them simply because a cause for their beatification was submitted and processed. There may be many others who have not been through the beatification process so we do not yet know them. Other prospects for Sainthood may be unknown people long since buried that we do not know lived the life of a Saint unless we were somehow to discover their caskets and experience undeniable miracles such as the state of being incorrupt or the odor of sanctity. In this case research would be done to find out who this person was, and a cause for beatification would be put together if possible and submitted.

As for Saints living among us at this moment, in many cases it may not be apparent to anyone else that a particular person is leading the life of a future Saint. The practicing of heroic virtues is in many cases not apparent to others since virtues such as asceticism, chastity or poverty all practiced with supernatural motives do not provide many outward signs. Some of the greatest Saints in the history of the Church were completely unknown throughout their lives, having done nothing spectacular from the point of view of others. An example of such a Saint is St. Therese of Lisieux. Her autobiography, Story of a Soul (also available from TAN Books) clearly shows St. Therese was completely unknown to the entire world, yet her practice of heroic virtue was so great, she is known as one of the greatest Saints of our day. To TRULY get a feel for what a Saint really is and how one lives, we highly recommend reading Story of a Soul, which is one of the greatest and most famous Christian books of all time.

Before closing we note here that over recent years some beatifications have been "expedited". Historically, true candidates for Sainthood have not been officially declared Saints for many decades after their deaths, so expediting the beatification process is NOT standard practice. There really is no important reason to expedite the process. Should beatification be for some reason expedited for any person, the tell tale signs for a true Saint MUST be the appropriate number of first class miracles associated with the person in question. Without these, the beatification process CANNOT be expedited and CANNOT take place without making it invalid.

Hopefully this article clarifies what a TRUE Saint is. If you need further clarification, please contact us!