Why Protestants and/or Evangelicals Need the Saints

Why Protestants and/or Evangelicals Need the Saints

by  Wendy Murray, author of Clare of Assisi: Gentle Warrior

As a Protestant, I have pondered why our faith tradition ought to know the host of Christian champions who are commonly deemed in the Catholic tradition, "the saints" --an aspect of our faith tradition that is largely neglected. If Protestants believe, as the book of Hebrews attests, that we live our lives of faith under the eye of a "cloud of witnesses" (Heb 12:1), we are hard-pressed not to animate that belief with an honest reckoning of the role these little-known champions play and have played in the larger Faith Story. To dismiss the saints is a tragedy of the Protestant/Evangelical traditions. We are smaller and perhaps shallower within our spirits without the benefit of their silent, invisible, gentle and mighty influences. Despite the sometimes exaggeratedappropriation of their names in the Catholic tradition, their outer lives and inner landscapes have left a sweet aroma over the testimony of the Christian church through the ages. 

What Is a Saint?

A saint is defined in the Dictionary of Saints by John Delaney (Doubleday, 1980) as real men, women and, in some cases, children who “strove to live lives of perfection to the best of their abilities in service of the the Master.” The author adds, they “struggled desperately [and] sometimes against a most mundane background” in their striving. The definition from The Penguin Dictionary of Saints notes further than those who have been deemed saints --while not faultless-- nevertheless lived their daily lives “not merely well, but at an heroic level of Christian faithfulness and integrity. . . . The saint is the man or woman who gives himself or herself to God heroically.” 

​If “saints” are the company of Christians whose lives are lived devotedly and heroically, how did the concept evolve that ultimately consigned the notion of saint to mean an elite company of super-Christians whose Feast Days filled the church calendar and whose images dangle from rearview mirrors? How did it come to pass that these heroic individuals were “canonized,” and inevitably, alas, commercialized?

What Is Canonization?

“Canon” comes from the Latin word that originally meant “list.” The idea started in the early 2nd century when the community of believers recognized the names of the martyrs who died often agonizing deaths for their public testimony about Jesus. “Each year on the anniversary of the saint’s martyrdom, the faithful assembled at his grave, the Eucharist was celebrated there, and during this the martyr was named with honour: it was an occasion of rejoicing and triumph, a ‘feast day,’ not a day of mourning.”

​The first such commemoration for which there is a record is that of the death of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who had been a disciple of the Apostle John and followed closely in his steps as a leading disciple of Jesus. He resided in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) as bishop of Smyrna and sent an epistle to the Philippians c. 120-140 CE. 

Polycarp’s own disciple, the early church father, Irenaeus (ca. 125-202), describes Polycarp and his death:

But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true.

 Polycarp died by being burned alive in the stadium in c. 155 CE.  

For many centuries thereafter “canonization” was simply a matter of a heroic Christian being publicly recognized and whose name had been added to a list - a “canon.” As time went on and church governance evolved, the overseers -- now called Bishops -- seized the initiative to determine which individuals would be placed on the list and rendered the honor of a feast being held to commemorate their death. Hence, the term “Feast Day of [So-and-so].” At this stage the process was still an “informal” process of canonization. 

​By about the 10th century in the West, the naming --or “canonizing” or “listing”--of the saints was put informally under the auspices of the Pope, and was a formalized decress by Pope Alexander III in 1170. This regulation was formally incorporated into Church law by Pope Gregory IX in 1234. 

​Thus, the “listing” process came to be deemed “formal” canonization, involving fixed rules and procedures that included an investigation into the candidate’s life. By 1634 this process was in full bloom and still exists today. 

Why Do Saints Become Commercialized?

​The well-known medieval scholar, Paul Sabatier calls the thirteenth century (when Clare and Francis lived) “the century of saints” suggesting this is due, in part, to the fact that “the Church had never been more powerful, nor more threatened.” 

​If you were not a Catholic during the Middle Ages in the West (the Mother Church taught), you were outside God’s graces. The Church had a monopoly on access to God for the common person, yet the well-known corruptions of the Church proved problematic for some earnest Christian seekers such as Francis and Clare and many others both before their time and after. At the time when they lived, a reform movement sweeping the Christian landscape provided an alternative for religious souls who claimed loyalty to the Church but eschewed its trappings and corruption. Clare and Francis appropriated the tenets of this movement, anchored in poverty, reclaiming the life and teachings of Jesus in its simplest expression. Sabatier captures the tension this way: “The saint was one whose mission was proclaimed by nothing in his apparel, but whose life and words made themselves felt in all hearts and consciences; he was one who, with no cure of souls in the Church, felt himself suddenly impelled to lift up his voice. The child of the people, he know all their material and moral woes and their mysterious echo sounded in his own heart.” 

​ This swiftly rising tide as manifest in the reform impulses of Francis and Clare, compelled the Mother Church to see that unless they somehow harnessed this force the Church would be vanquished by it. “When the priest sees himself vanquished by the prophet,” continues Sabatier, “he takes him under his protection, he introduces [the saint’s] harangues into sacred canon.”  To this end, the Church makes the most of this devotion, marketing miracles and manufacturing talismans to keep the spirits of the devoted masses enlivened. “The days pass on, the years roll by, and the moment comes when the crowd no longer distinguishes between them, and it ends by believing the prophet [saint] to an emanation of the clergy,” writes Sabatier, concluding, “This is one of the bitterest ironies of history.”

Does Commercialization Nullify Authenticity?

When I lived in Assisi, Italy I was exposed to commercialization of the town’s beloved saint and the associated religious community to an extent that felt comical after a time. At any given shop you could walk in and be confronted immediately with figurines of dancing nuns and drinking friars. (“Si guarda ma non si tocca” -- look but don’t touch).

​Yet beyond the kitsch, every day in Assisi you will likewise see devoted pilgrims plodding the alleyways, rain or shine, with unstinting resolve to know something of Saint Francis and Saint Clare. Their two churches anchor the town in an unresolved tension that keeps these dedicated seekers searching for something they can’t put a finger on. They are hounded, as I myself was hounded. They poke around, pray, weep, sing, kneel, cross themselves, light candles, and realize with astonishing regularity the miracles they seek, large and small.

​So while the commercialization of the saints inevitably creeps into the marketplace of religious devotion, the embellishments arise from a seed of truth and tap into something beyond commercialized piety. In Dictionary of Saints, Delaney poses the question, “Who would dare say Francis of Assisi is not relevant today?” and I join him in the asking. So many know so little about him beyond his prominence in yards as a garden statue. Yet moderns ought to know him, and the countless others whose lives carry an echo with which all people of faith ought to find resonance. 

Choose Your Saint

“Choose for yourself some individual saint whose life especially to study and imitate and whose prayers may be more particularly offered on your behalf.”  (Francis de Sales)

​Protestants would be well-served to remember the greater testimony of the innumerable men and women who suffered cruelly, died heroically, or otherwise lived lives with great faithfulness, often under duress, in the name of their Christian witness. The saints comprise a host of champions of faith whose devotion has been forged through the “interrogation of suffering” (to borrow from Thomas Merton). They remain a sort of plumb line whose witness draws closer to the true stakes of what it means to claim the name of Christ. "They limit themselves to living -- to preaching by work and by example -- without wealth, without pomp, without legal rights, but not without force nor without trials -- not without friends, nor, above all, without enemies . . . [T]hey have drawn the secret of a life tenacious and fruitful" (p. 5)

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