St. Pope John Paul II is said to have canonized more saints than any other pope in history. Canonization is that process, with its concluding ritual, that officially puts someone on the Church’s list of saints, people who enjoy heaven due to their heroic pursuit of holiness. In the first thousand years of the Church’s history there was no canonization process. People were simply acclaimed by the public to be holy and therefore to be honored as saints in heaven.
However during the 6th and 7th centuries the number of people regarded as saints rapidly multiplied, and various abuses occurred. Praying for assistance from saints came to be more popular than imitating the holiness of their lives. People became obsessed with miracles and with possessing relics - the physical remains or possessions of people considered to be saints. Great shrines would be built to house these relics, bringing pilgrims from afar, even to the point where the presence of saints’ relics in a church would sometimes be perceived as more important than the Eucharist that was celebrated there. Such seemingly odd customs continue today in some places, as, for example, the burying of a statue of St. Joseph in the hopes of selling property.
Eventually a controlled process for examining candidates’ lives became essential. At first the local bishop conducted the investigation into a person’s reputation for holiness, then, as authority became increasingly centralized in Rome, the process was shifted to Roman offices. The first person to be officially named a saint was Bishop Ulrich of Augsburg in Germany, who died in 973, and was canonized by Pope John XV in 993.
The first saints to be honored by the primitive Christian community were, for the most part, martyrs. Names like Stephen, Peter and Paul come immediately to mind, but the successive persecutions of Christians by the Roman Empire produced thousands of martyrs, most of them nameless. Friends and loved ones of these brave people who had given their lives for the faith would gather at their places of burial on the anniversaries of their deaths. In fact, these anniversaries were called “birthdays,” for it was on the day of death that these heroic people began new and eternal life.
Another category of saint is the “confessor.” This is not one to whom someone else confesses sins, as we understand that term today, but rather someone who defended the Christian faith publicly, who might have then suffered prison, torture and exile, but not death. However when they did die, they were given the same honor as martyrs. St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra, who died in 350, and who is the real person behind the Santa Clause tradition, was revered as a “confessor.”
Over the centuries there have been countless thousands of people who have sought to lead the holy life, but only a handful have feast days on our liturgical calendar, and fewer still are names that are familiar to us. Familiar or not, we believe ourselves to be in close communion with them. Indeed, the Church considers itself to be a “communion of saints,” a belief already found in the Apostles’ Creed by the late fifth century, but going back much earlier in popular piety and practice. The doctrine of the communion of saints describes the Church as a community of all the faithful, living and dead, called together by God and transformed by Christ and the Spirit. So Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church affirms, “For all who belong to Christ, having his Spirit, form one church and cleave together in him. Therefore, the union of the wayfarers with the brothers and sisters who have gone to sleep in the peace of Christ is not in the least interrupted.”