At the beginning of his epistle to the Romans, Paul wrote: “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:7). This name “saints” is one given to the members of the first Christian communities (e.g. Eph. 1:1). It may signify the Christians who constitute the “church of God” in a particular place (2 Cor. 1:1; Heb. 13:24-25; Col. 1:2), or it may signify the whole Christian people (Eph. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:2). Its most frequent equivalent is “brothers (and sisters)”, as in Col. 1:2: “To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae” (cf. Phil. 4:21-22). Saints form a new community coming both from the Jewish community in Jerusalem (Acts 9:13; Rom. 15:25) and from gentile Christianity (Rom. 1:7). The apostle is one of them: “I am the very least of all the saints” (Eph. 3:8). Later, they were called Christians (Acts 11:26).

Saints and the mystery of the church

The notion of saints should be seen as part of the mystery of the church,* “those who are sanctified [i.e. the holy people] in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:2), the people of the New Testament. It includes certain basic affirmations.

“One only is holy, One only is the Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father.” This is a very ancient liturgical exclamation which echoes the hymn of the Lamb (Rev. 15:3-4), acclaimed as Kyrios (Eph. 4:5; Phil. 2:11) and as “the Holy One of God” (John 6:69; cf. Luke 4:34). Jesus Christ* is holy both as the Son of God and as bearer of the Spirit when at his baptism the Holy Spirit* descended on him (Luke 3:22). With this authority and power he destroyed the unclean spirits (Luke 4:33-37). Christians “have been anointed by the Holy One” (1 John 2:20), being called to become “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). The identity itself of the saint is to be bearer of the Spirit.

The faithful are called saints because of their participation in the holiness of God, who is holy by his own nature (Isa. 6:3). Christians are saints in God’s holiness (1 Pet. 1:15), in Christ (Phil. 4:21). They are “God’s chosen ones, holy [or saints]” (Col. 3:12). One aspect of the mystery of the church is this new consecration in Christ of a “priestly kingdom”, “holy nation”, “royal priesthood” (Ex. 19:6; 1 Pet. 2:9; cf. Isa. 43:20-21), which is not exclusive or restricted. An essential criterion of the new people is that “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19-20).

It is part of the mystery of the church to be the manifestation of God’s glory and holiness, for God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love” (Eph. 1:3-4). He presents to himself a glorious church “without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind – yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27). Christ sacrificed himself for her to make her holy (Eph. 5:25-26). Christ made the church his body, in spite of the sin* of its members. Hence, the church must always be in a state of renewal, of repentance.

Scripture refers also to the communion of saints,* the friends and fellow heirs of Christ (see Eph. 4:1-6), the “inheritance among all who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). He will come “to be glorified by his saints and to be marvelled at… among all who have believed” (2 Thess. 1:10). The kingdom of God* is promised to them and includes “the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints” (Eph. 1:18). The book of Revelation recalls those who, having finished their earthly pilgrimage, enjoy God’s presence in the heavenly city (Rev. 7:9-17). “To be ‘in Christ’ is to be in his body, a member of a fellowship which transforms the local neighbourhood, which overleaps boundaries of nation and race and whose own boundaries are lost to sight in the infinite horizons of the eternal communion of saints” (Oliver Tomkins, Youth in the World-Church , 1947).

Belonging to a community is a sign of the new condition (see 1 John 2:19). Conversion* means, then, “to share in the inheritance of the saints in light” (Col. 1:12). It implies equally “the service of the saints” (1 Cor. 16:15).

As a holy people, the church has the capacity to discern, to sort out, to reveal the light that “darkness did not overcome” (John 1:5). The church of God received the power to bind and to loose (see John 20:23) and the power to judge (1 Cor. 6:2).

The vocation of saints

Saints’ vocation* is to hallow the name of God: “The name of God is in its own nature holy, whether we say so or not; but since it is sometimes profaned among sinners, according to the words, ‘through you, my name is continually blasphemed among the Gentiles’ (Rom. 2:24), we pray that in us God’s name may be hallowed; not that it becomes holy from not being holy, but because it becomes holy in us, when we become holy; and do things worthy of holiness” (Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystagogical Catechesis 5.12).

“You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:16). This verse teaches that the saints have their own way of life, a distinctive spirituality – a radical orientation of life, not in a legalistic sense, but in an incarnational sense: “Clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24). The emphasis is here on the cleansing of the inside so that the outside may also be clean (Matt. 23:26).

The life of a saint is the most valid exposition of Christ himself. The disciple can speak of “Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20) or of Christ “speaking in me” (2 Cor. 13:3). In fact, the saints gain later the special connotation of those who reflect the likeness of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18), who have “become participants of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), and who develop into “maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).

In the saints’ experience, Christ comes to offer the gifts of his kingdom, and they themselves become the first-fruits of it. “I chose you and I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (John 15:16). The saints worship God by offering their living bodies as a holy sacrifice (Rom. 12:1). In fact, the discipline of the saint implies a continuous ascetic combat. The struggle of the saint is primarily not to lose sight of Jesus, who leads us into our faith and brings it to perfection (Heb. 12:2).

Saints and the ecumenical community

The theme of saints has its own value for ecumenical concerns. For ecumenical spirituality, for example, one cannot separate or confuse sanctification* and social transformation. Those who are more active socially do not have the right to exclude those who place a special emphasis on conversion, renewal, holiness* – and vice versa. Both disciplines should be experienced and preserved in their distinctiveness. Therefore “let… the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy” (Rev. 22:11).

The theme of saints is also essential in order to keep the search for visible unity* deeply rooted in the life of prayer, of mutual intercession among the churches. The practice of continued intercession for one another, and for all the churches, keeps before every Christian something of the catholicity* of the church of Christ. It enables the churches to see one another not with the eyes of confessional appraisal and historical assessment but as joint petitioners before the throne of God. It opens one not only to give but also to receive within the fellowship of prayer and service.

In the ecumenical community the churches bring their particularities of life, worship and witness. From the “saints” tradition we learn about the extraordinary power of the Christian life (“holiness as witness”) for the proclamation of the gospel. The churches have arrived at a more active appreciation of what we might call the common priesthood of all the baptized (see l Pet. 3:15; Rev. 1:6, 5:9-10), of the gifts of grace, vocations and ministries found in the communities; they devise new life-styles which commend the gospel in today’s world; they have reconsidered the lives of saints, martyrs and mystics as real spiritual nourishment for the communities.

It is highly important for today’s ecumenical spirituality and liturgical renewal to recognize the saints as encouraging examples on the pilgrim journey and as symbols of the church universal: “Confessing the apostolic creed in our worship, we affirm our belief in the community of saints. Thus we are reminded that we live together with the martyrs of all times. Christians who give their lives for the sake of the kingdom are martyrs. We remember them in our worship as encouraging examples. They are symbols of the total church. They give us inspiration as to how ‘worship and work must be one’. We have learned that the unity between worship and daily Christian life needs urgently to be recovered” ( Gathered for Life , 1983). Commemoration of all saints and martyrs of the church universal is observed on the first Sunday after Pentecost in the Orthodox churches and on 1 November in the Western tradition.

Saints and the liturgy

The tradition of mentioning the names of saints before God and of making intercesssion for each other is apostolic (see Eph. 1:15-23). The commemoration of saints is a liturgical act. Some saints are venerated only in certain places, in certain local churches; the names of other saints appear in the calendar of the church universal.

“We worship him, the true Son of God. We honour our martyrs as teachers and followers of the Lord” (Martyrdom of Polycarp 17.3 ) . The second council of Nicea (787) made the distinction between the true worship due to God (latreia) and proper devotion accorded to the sacred images and to the saints. (The council also decided that each new church should contain a relic of a saint on the altar table.) The veneration given to the saints in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox tradition goes to the only Holy One, Jesus Christ. In the liturgy of this tradition, Christians invoke saints as intercessors and protectors, not as mediators. Saints make supplication for the pilgrim church (Eph. 6:18). They render thanks to God for those who enter the glorious church and do not cease to offer prayers for the historical church.

“The church has always believed that the apostles, and Christ’s martyrs who had given the supreme witness of faith and charity by the shedding of their blood, are quite closely joined with us in Christ. She has always venerated them with special devotion, together with the Blessed Virgin Mary and the holy angels. The church too has devoutly implored the aid of their intercession. To these were soon added those who had imitated Christ’s virginity and poverty more exactly, and finally others whom the outstanding practice of the Christian virtues and the divine charisms recommended to the pious devotion and imitation of the faithful” (Vatican II, Constitution on the Church, 50).

Owing to some excesses in the reverence of saints in the development of the liturgy, Protestants in particular felt that the uniqueness of Christ as mediator was threatened. This fear led to reactions against the invocation of saints and the suppression of their commemoration in the liturgy and the liturgical calendar. In today’s ecumenical context, it is perhaps necessary to beware of excesses leading to deviations in Christology and at the same time to pay serious attention to the presence in some Protestant liturgies of the notion of the “communion of saints”. It is also necessary to consider seriously what it means to be a saint in today’s world, in the light of the Christian belief that

the Spirit “blows where it chooses” (John 3:8).


n R. Larini, Il libro dei testimoni: martirologio ecumenico , Cinisello Balsamo, Edizioni San Paolo, 2002 n O. Procksch, “ Hagios in the New Testament”, in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament , G. Kittel ed., vol. 1, Grand Rapids MI, Eerdmans, 1976 n K. Schlemmer ed., Heilige als Brückenbauer: Heiligenverehrung im ökumenischen Dialog , St Ottilien, EOS, 1997

The text above is extracted from “ Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement ” 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches

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