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James Martin, S.J.November 07, 2011

Over the past few years, I have spent a good deal of time speaking to groups both large and small about the saints. After listening to the comments and questions of people in parishes, colleges and universities, retreat houses and conferences, as well as reading scores of letters, I have noticed two extremes in contemporary Catholic devotion to the saints, both of them perilous.

The two main ways of understanding the saints in the Catholic tradition are to see them as patrons and as companions. These two models are elucidated in most scholarly studies of the saints, among them Friends of God and Prophets by Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J. They also find voice in the Preface of the Mass for Holy Men and Women, used on the feast days of the saints: “They inspire us by their heroic lives and help us by their constant prayers.”

The main challenge in fostering devotion to the saints lies in steering between the extremes surrounding those two models. On the one hand, there is in some quarters an exaggerated emphasis on the patron: the canonized saint in heaven who intercedes for us. In this understanding, the focus is on the one who prays for us in company with the risen Christ, the Blessed Mother and the communion of saints, after having led an earthly life beyond any critique; the patron never entertained an unorthodox thought, never suffered doubt for even a moment, never experienced conflict with the institutional church. Seen thus, saints are supposed to be acceptable in every way to people of every devotional type. Catholics who overemphasize this model are sometimes shocked to hear about the flaws of the saints, the areas where they did not follow the status quo and those times when they found themselves in conflict with church leaders.

On the other side are those who overemphasize the companion model: the earthy, sinful, struggling man or woman who shows us, through sometimes flawed actions, how holiness always makes its home in humanity. In this conception, the saint is someone who, once dead, serves no other role than that of model—as if their lives ended once they died. People in this camp often recoil from the parts of saints’ lives that include apparitions, visions or anything that remotely smacks of the supernatural. They are often aghast at talk of intercession, pilgrimages, novenas for the saint’s help and, of course, miracles.

A healthier (and more accurate) model is to see the saint as both patron and companion: the manifestly human being whose earthly life shows that being a saint means being who you are, but who now enjoys life in heaven and intercedes for us.

By way of illustration, let me share two stories from the two dangerous extremes.

Human Lives

A few years ago I wrote a brief article for the op-ed page of The New York Times that described the incredible life of Mother Theodore Guérin, the newest American saint. Mother Guérin was born in 1798 in France, entered religious life and eventually journeyed to Indiana. There this remarkably determined woman founded the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods and started a college and several schools in the region. One might think that such zeal would have won her favor from the local bishop.

It did not. The idea of a strong, independent woman deciding where and when to open schools apparently offended the bishop of Vincennes, Ind., a man whose name sounds like that of a villain in a Victorian-era potboiler: Celestine de la Hailandière. In 1844, when Mother Guérin was away from her convent raising money, the bishop, in a bid to eject her from the very order she founded, ordered her congregation to elect a new superior. Obediently, the sisters convened a meeting. There they re-elected Mother Guérin—unanimously. Infuriated, Bishop de la Hailandière informed the future saint that she was forbidden to set foot in her own convent, since he, the bishop, considered himself its sole proprietor.

Three years later, Bishop de la Hailandière demanded Mother Guérin’s resignation. When the exceedingly patient foundress refused, the bishop told her congregation that she was no longer its superior, that she was ordered to leave Indiana and that she was forbidden from communicating with her sisters. Her sisters replied that they were not willing to obey a dictator. At one point, the bishop locked Mother Guérin in his house until her sisters pleaded for her release. The situation worsened until, a few weeks later, Bishop de la Hailandière was replaced by the Vatican.

My op-ed noted that for a time the future saint, through no fault of her own, found herself in conflict with the church hierarchy. Within just a few days, I received a letter from a bishop with whom I am friendly. My article, he said, was damaging to the faithful. Was I saying that the only way to be a saint was to oppose the hierarchy? By no means, I replied. Rather, Mother Guérin’s struggles with her bishop were part of her spiritual journey, her very human life on earth.

Coincidentally, I had just returned from a pilgrimage to Lourdes, where I had spent time cheerfully chatting with this friendly bishop. I am surprised that this would come from someone who visits Lourdes, he said in his letter. In response, I pointed out that St. Bernadette Soubirous, the visionary of Lourdes, had herself been booted out of the town’s rectory by the local pastor, after she first reported her visions of Mary. Here was another instance of a future saint being, for a time, rejected by the church. (The story of Mary MacKillop, the new Australian saint who was for a time excommunicated, is another of many such examples.) Understanding the saints as bland figures whose lives were free of any conflict indicates an exaggeration of the patron model, where any “controversial” aspects of a saint’s life are seen as irrelevant, now that they are in heaven.

Some Catholics who gravitate toward this extreme are discouraged to hear that the saints sometimes sinned even after their conversions; that they did not follow the “expected” things that saints are supposed to do; or that they were, in a word, human. Once, during a parish talk, I quoted St. Thérèse of Lisieux on the rosary, as an example of how different were the saints. They were not cookie-cutter models of one another, nor were their spiritualities. “The recitation of the Rosary,” said the Little Flower, “is as difficult for me as wearing an instrument of penance.” The crowd—believe it or not—gasped audibly.

“Why did you say that?” said a Catholic sister afterward. “Because it’s true,” I said. “Well, you shouldn’t say such things,” she said.

One extreme to be avoided, then, is an excessive emphasis on a homogenized, noncontroversial blandness. For the one who prays for us in heaven also lived a human life.

Saints Alive

The other extreme is an overemphasis on the companion model, which stresses the saints’ humanity. More explicitly, it is an approach that shies away from what happens after the saint’s earthly death. A few years ago after another trip to Lourdes, I told a Catholic theologian about my visit there and about the pilgrims with whom I went.

“That’s dangerous,” he said.

“What is?” I asked.

“The notion that the saints pray for us, that miracles happen—like magic.”

But that is what we mean by “patron,” I responded, quoting the prayers of the Mass: “They help us with their constant prayers.” After all, I said, the law of prayer is the law of belief (Lex orandi, lex credendi). Besides, the records of miraculous cures are available in Lourdes for all to see, authenticated by physicians, many of them nonbelievers. And that is just for St. Bernadette. Read the canonization papers for any modern saint and you will be gobsmacked by the cures: immediate, irreversible, inexplicable. From the look on my friend’s face, however, you might have thought I was telling him that I believed in the Great Pumpkin.

But if God can create the universe and raise his Son from the dead, then miracles—miracles today, that is—seem easy in comparison. Regarding the question of why some prayers are answered and others are not: I have no idea. Why, if millions visit Lourdes annually, have only 67 miracles been authenticated? I have no clue. But that is no cop-out; it is on the same theological plane as the problem of evil: Why do some people suffer? I don’t know, but I do not need to understand God fully to believe in God fully or to love God fully. But those miracles, whether or not we understand why they happen, do happen.

When the doubtful or suspicious ask about intercession I often ask them this: If we ask for the prayers of friends on earth, why not from friends in heaven—unless we do not believe that they are with God, or that God somehow destroys their unique selves after their death, which I cannot believe. If our fellow sinful believers on earth pray for us, why wouldn’t the saints? Regarding intercession, it is also important to look at the sensus fidelium. Millions of Catholics pray to the saints for their help; they can recount personal stories of being helped in ways that go beyond credulousness, gullibility or stupidity. So I pray to the saints regularly. But I do not get overly upset when my prayers are not answered.

The dangerous thing is not so much “believing in miracles” or even “believing in intercession.” The dangerous thing is limiting God. In essence, it is saying, “God cannot possibly work like this.”


When it comes to devotion to the saints one must hold in tension their dual roles as patron and companion. An overemphasis on one destroys the saint’s humanity, renders their earthly lives almost meaningless and negates their roles as models, examples and companions as Christian disciples. An overemphasis on the other makes their new lives in heaven meaningless, renders the tradition of intercession irrelevant and negates their current place in the communion of saints.

There is an obvious parallel to Christology. In classical Christian theology, Jesus Christ is understood as “fully human and fully divine.” An overemphasis on the divinity of Christ (for example, saying that Jesus could not suffer because he was God) is as unhelpful as is overemphasis on Jesus’ humanity (for example, denying his ability to perform miracles). Both need to be kept squarely before us as Christians, to be held in tension for us to begin to understand Jesus Christ. The same tension needs to be held when looking at the saints, balancing hagiography “from above” and “from below.”

So in my own work and life I am trying to restore a little balance. And I’m happy to do so with the help of the saints, my patrons and companions.

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12 years 6 months ago
Thank you Father Martin. I have been teaching CCD children about the saints for years. Both as companions and patrons. The saints when looked at from both their failures and their ability to overcome them and lead lives that lead to sainthood.

They have run the race and run it well, we should be glad to ask for their help when we pray to God. They are such wonderful role models for our children when properly introduced.

I recall that during several years of one of my classes, the children prayed to Blessed Kateri for two critically sick people and both recovered. I spoke to family members of the recovered people and in both cases, doctors could not explain the cures. I say that it was Blessed Kateri Tekatwitha, praying together with us to our Lord.
C Walter Mattingly
12 years 6 months ago
What a fine essay on the saint as a whole and holy person, neither merely an exalted phantom image takeoff from a holy card, nor simply a highly respected social worker, but a person who adequately, doggedly, and humanly lives the life of Christ in the Church. Bravo.
Philomena Ewing
12 years 6 months ago
This is one of the best explanations I have ever read of what makes a saint and why we still need them after their death. The named examples you chose are excellent.
Your separate tales of your bishop, the gasps from the audience and the Great Pumpkin remarks are priceless because each in their own ways show the ridiculous ways the church has promulgated a false message of sainthood so polished and farcical that it resembles a fairy story more than real life.

This article deserves a much wider audience and it is also refreshing to see an example of how a priest can stand up to a bishop - behind the humour there is a serious message !!
Blessings and thanks.
12 years 6 months ago
James:  You have a gift for frankness, and historical accuracy.  I enjoy reading anything you write.  Thank you for your straightforward presentations and your humor.  This is one of the most balanced statements on being human and holy I have read in some time.  
James Collins
12 years 6 months ago
Great article, I loved it. Just the right balance.
Lucie Johnson
12 years 6 months ago
I enjoyed this article, and the balanced treatment of the topic.Thanks!
Mark Szewczak
12 years 6 months ago

Excellent article and I found the personal experiences and the reactions of some more learned than me to be enlightening.

12 years 6 months ago
Thanks for another fine article on approaching the saints. It seems like so many questions in life, it's about finding common ground, avoiding polarities and either /or thinking. A lesson that keeps on giving!
Fran Rossi Szpylczyn
12 years 6 months ago
Thanks for this - really wonderful.  As you know, I had a talk to give about the saints and was using your book as one of my resources. I also had at the ready, one of my favorite books - Friends of God and Prophets.  Having read that awhile back and having referenced it numerous times, and having your book, I spent some time on this concept. It is always important to occupy that great Catholic space, the space between the poles, where the truth lives. Thanks for elucidating that so well here.
Anne Chapman
12 years 6 months ago
Stories of saints and miracles confuse me - what are we really to make of them beyond having the saints be role models?

Why would God favor those who have friends or school children in CCD to pray for them and dismiss the needs of others simply because they do not have this kind of support? What kind of God would that be who helps the fortunate because they have someone praying for them and looks away from the friendless and lonely because they don't have someone to pray for God to interecede for them? Does God play favorites?  Can God be "bribed"?

There is a book on miracles and saints called' The Book of Miracles: The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam'. by Kenneth Woodward.  The NYT review is found at:  


 All major religions have saints and stories of miracles and shrines for pilgrimage, so these things must fulfill some kind of human desire or need in terms of trying to define the human/divine relationship.

Fr. Martin, what is your view (and/or the official church view) of the saints and miracles in non-Christian religions?  They also sometimes called in scientists etc to see if the miracle can be explained, and often they cannot - just as in Lourdes.  
What are your beliefs regarding miracles in other religions? Do you accept the truth of the miracles experienced by non-Christians, which are many and varied just as in Christianity? If not, why not?
Craig McKee
12 years 6 months ago
As this article more than anecdotally demonstrates, NUNS ( like Sr. Johnson and countless who came before her!) GET NO RESPECT from the institution until they're DEAD!
12 years 6 months ago

I’ve grown  accustomed  referring to Jesuit priest, James Martin as, “the priest who rubs shoulders with the Saints!” He’s done it again with “Patrons and Companions, wonderful to read anytime, especially on All Saints Day, which I did.

Saint Mother Theodore Guerin was exciting to read about, a very determined woman who had to contend  with a Bishop if  in ministry today, would have to seek psychiatric therapy. Saint Mary MacKillop didn’t fare much better, worse perhaps, as her Bishop excommunicated her, later lifted by the Holy See and the Bishop removed. St. Teresa of Avila once said she would rather deal with one hundred devils, than with one angry nun! I wonder if the two Saints mentioned felt it easier to deal with one hundred devils, than with an angry Bishop!

As always Fr. Martin pointed out that Saints are, like us, “people” flesh and blood humanbeings subject to screw-ups from time to time – they are not angelic, exactly because they are “human” and not “angels.” That  give me (us) hope, doesn’t it?

As far as praying to saints for Divine help goes, it a very good idea.   I know a man who more than forty years ago, prayed to a saint (Padre Pio) for deliverance from a Substance Abuse addiction and was instantly healed of that addiction on a Bronx street late at night, totally healed of that addiction with absolutely no relapse in over forty years! Praying to saints for Divine assistance works and as usual in God’s own way and in God’s own time.

Even the shadow of a saint falling upon the sick can heal as Acts reports. There we discover that once St. Peter’s shadow fell upon a sick person and he was instantly healed. A similar thing happened with St. Paul’s handkerchief  when  someone was healed by touching it. I think also in Acts.

Yes, saints are wonderful Patrons and Companions, even if some of them like Therese of Lisieux find the Rosary a hard crust of bread to chew. I understand her dilemma as I, too, ( no Therese of Lisieux beyond doubt) also find it hard to pray the Rosary, easier with  a group, impossible alone! It puts me to sleep and I find it very distracting! Fortunately, thank God, this peculiarity of my spiritual life  doesn’t affect my love for Blessed Mother or my ability to meditate on her life with wonder and awe!

God bless our Saintst! God bless Fr. James Martin for keeping in touch with them for us!

12 years 6 months ago
Post #12 - A Correction - It was St. Theodore's Bishop who was replaced by the Vatican, not St. Mary Killop's. Sorry for the mistake.
Paul Bayer
12 years 6 months ago

Weren't the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas declared as heresy by the Church for some time? I seem to remember that in the late nineteenth century the Church Hierarchy revisited his writings and soon after this decision was reversed and it became required curriculum in the seminaries. I could be wrong about this.

Michael Widner
12 years 6 months ago
This was an excellent article, as always, by Fr. Martin.  The only thing I would take issue with is your portrayal of Bishop Hailandiere.  He was not an evil man, but rather a misguided man.  He had been a lawyer and obviously had a problem with control issues.  He had a horrible time with his priests as well.

His predecessor, Servant of God Simon Brute, (who, incidentally was the spiritual director to Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton), originally wanted a Jesuit as his successor, but the Society refused to allow it.

Anyway, Hailandiere offered his resignation to Rome and I find it a bit misleading to say "Bishop de la Hailandière was replaced by the Vatican."  Isn't every bishop "replaced by the Vatican"?  In reality, Hailandiere's resignation was finally accepted.

During her time of trial, Mother Theodore sought advice from her former bishop in France (the name escapes me a t the moment).  Everyone knew that Hailandiere had a problem with "control", but everyone also knew that his intentions were honorable and that he contributed greatly to the building up of the Church in Indiana.  It was he who invited the Sisters to Indiana in the first place.  One has to always place themselves in the context of the day.

Jim McCrea
12 years 6 months ago

" - everyone also knew that his intentions were honorable -"


Well, then , that make his abusive behavior perfectly hunky dory!


The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

12 years 5 months ago
James Martin's article on saints (11/7) was food for thought. It brought to mind Mother Alfred Moes (1828-1899) an immigrant from Luxembourg, the foundress of the Joliet Franciscans. Mother Alfred's success brought her into conflict with Bishop Foley. He separated her from the Joliet sisters even though they voted for her to continue as their Mother Superior. Mother Alfred was sent to Rochester MN where she began another community of Franciscans. When an 1883 torado caused so much destruction Mother Alfred realized there was a need for a hospital. She recruited Dr. William Mayo and at the sisters' expense opened St. Mary's Hospital in 1889 and today it is part of the Mayo Clinic. Mother Alfred is considered the "Mother of the Mayo Clinic".

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