Some reputed saints that have been canonised ought to have been cannonaded. (Charles Caleb-Colton)

The dictionary defines a saint as "Someone who after death attains a reputation for holy deeds or behaviour." In the early Church, ‘saint’ was a euphemism for all good Christians generally, rather than specific individuals.

The Holy Roman Empire leaders were worried by reports that people were not only praying directly to Jesus or to God, but also to respected people who had died generations before. Unofficial shrines were being established around some personages. The Church attempted initially to quash such personality cults. To pray to anyone other than God was regarded as heresy. If messages and prayers needed to be forwarded through intermediaries then God was regarded as depersonalised, distant, and reluctant to communicate with his followers. People looked upon the dead as a more identifiable means of communicating with the divine. The same origins may also apply to angels, visions, and the prophets, (including Jesus). Why wasn’t the all-powerful God dealing with matters personally, instead of sending boys out to do a man’s job? I’d prefer to talk to the organ grinder rather than one of his monkeys too. When the Church realised it wasn’t going to stop the rise of the saints, they chose to exploit them instead. The Church drew up an official ‘canon’ of authorised, legitimate saints, at first recognised by public consent, but later through bishops organising official feast days and celebrations for certain personages, and finally, it became the near exclusive duty of the Pope. The process is now very formalised, and rigorous. People are first to be recognised as beatified, and many saints are not officially recognised as such until hundreds of years after they died. Mother Teresa might have to wait until 2098 for official recognition. Some recognised saints have even been crossed off the official canon later. I wanted the confirmation name of St. Christopher in my Catholic childhood, but I had to settle for Jerome instead. Christopher got sacked.


Martyrs are the most exciting saints, as their stories depict courage under fire and bravery in the face of death. Fox’s Book Of Martyrs was among my childhood recommended reading. (and useful research material here). Roman emperors from Nero onwards were exasperated to find that the Christians often fell to the lions with smiles on their faces, rather than terror, or prayed forgiveness upon their torturers and executioners no matter how bad the pain inflicted. Take St. Sebastian; secretly a Christian, he gained entry to the army of Emperor Carinus, to help rescue the victims of the persecution going on, but quickly discovered, he was shot full of arrows and left for dead. Rescued, he refused to flee, and went instead to shout to the Emperor directly; "The words of thy priests are false, O Emperor, who say we Christians are enemies of the State, for we do not cease to pray for thy welfare and that of the realm." Sebastian was immediately arrested, cudgelled to death and chucked in a sewer, in 303. Brave as he was, he was a fool. Caution, and long term planning might have made him a better campaign leader in the resistance to Roman oppression. While Sebastion may have coveted death and the afterlife, it is safe to say that most so-called martyrs were merely unwilling murder victims.

"Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings." (George Orwell, in Death Of An Elephant).

Others took the desire for death in the name of faith to such a degree of fanatical zeal that their worth as good Christians has to be rendered bogus and void. Umberto Eco, in Travels in Hyper-reality, (Picador 1986) describes the 3rd century Circoncillian Order who would "stop wayfarers and threaten death if they refused to martyr them." They were also given to mass suicides (precursors to the 912 suicidal cult martyrs and fanatics of the Jonestown cult in 1978). Career martyrdom clearly blinds Its fanatics to life in this world. Death becomes more enviable for them to life. In their zeal they invariably forced many less willing victims, including their own children, to share their doom.


Many mystically minded Christians chose to follow Jesus’s example and sought God & enlightenment in the desert wildernesses of the Middle East. They pursued a hermit’s life of chastity and abstention There is a fallacy that they cut themselves off entirely from the outside world, as most hermits did communicate enough to let others know they still lived and attract alms and vital food donations from passing well wishers. Such voluntary solitary confinement was the root of visions and revelations. Hermits often proved to have been high ranking clergymen who acted in protest to ecclesiastical power taking over from spiritual, and spontaneous experience. Half-starved, and with only their meditational faith to preserve them, it is no wonder the hermits had such an intense, fervent notion of what religion meant. Hermitage gave rise to the early monastic orders, which were effectively a means for hermits to work together while maintaining the practice of asceticism and retreat into personal isolationism. In the 1830’s there was a potty aristocratic English trend to collect ‘ornamental hermits’ on large family estates. Edith Sitwell (English Eccentrics Faber & Faber 1933) wrote of one gentleman in Preston who offered a newspaper ad for a hermit willing to live in a prepared underground chamber and who was not to cut his hair, or nails (fingers or toes) for £50 a year for life. The job was taken right away & the contract was adhered to for four years.

For Humanists integration with the community is essential, so hermitage and separation, with its similarities to cruel ‘involuntary’ forms of exile, simply won’t do.


Early monks did do a great deal of scholarship and many valuable works of literature and philosophical scholarship that might have perished were preserved by their efforts. The influence of St. Augustine Of Hippo, through his efforts to integrate Aristotelian cosmology with Christian doctrine is profound, and serves as the basis of his canonisation (along with his remorse at rejecting the worth of the Bible earlier in life). St. Jerome, canonised for his translations of the New Testament into Latin, was more controversial for his damming criticism of the Roman orthodox ministry. Other scholars have of course caused the Church to fragment and split into dangerous schisms. Martin Luther’s research lead to the rise of the Protestant Reformation, and he has never been forgiven, let alone canonised for his dynamic influence on Western religious history. Protestants generally frown on the use of saints by Catholics, dismissing saint worship as idolatrous, especially when relics associated with saints become commercially marketable. The graves of some saints have been robbed, and their very bones sold as highly prized bounty to the more gullible believers.


Great charity work, and the missionary work that took Christianity to other countries also proved to be a basis for canonisation (The Blue Peter boy scout merit badge of faith). Mother Teresa wasn’t averse to accepting charity from fascist dictators around the world. Missionaries taking Christianity to Africa also took colonialism and capitalism there and fuelled the slave trade. We have Saints Alban & Dunstan (not) to thank for promoting Christianity to England. They deserve the title of our Patron saint more than St. George, a Palestinian mercenary (who died in 303). George helped Christians being persecuted by Rome’s Emperor Diocletian. He was a figure who inspired the Crusaders serving Richard 1st, centuries later, and may never have even visited England. The dragon he fought was probably just a crocodile.


Claims of miracle healings performed by saints are all apocryphal. St. Bernadette, who’s alleged visions of the Virgin Mary lead to the establishment of the shrine at Lourdes, was disbelieved and cruelly treated by the clergy, and died herself of chronic illness, aged just 35, while the church officially recognises about a measly eight official miracle cures among the thousands visiting Lourdes. Joan Of Arc may be a Saint to the French, but the British, who's leaders called for her execution fire, find her an embarrassment to this day. Christian saints were often more trouble than they were worth, but what of non-Catholic saints? We think of India’s Gandhi as a saint more for his politics than for his Hindu beliefs. Bob Geldof was referred to by the popular press as St. Bob for the Live Aid Ethiopian famine relief work he did as a mere pop star, though his subsequent relationship problems have rather tarnished his image. Islam offers little support for saints, though some shrines are established,. particularly in the Sufi tradition. Humanists recognise that many people do sterling work in secular terms to match anything saints have done; Oscar Shindler’s wartime rescue of the Jews is well documented. We have John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarian assertion that happiness dictates moral human worth more than religion. "Can one be a saint if God does not exist? That is the only concrete problem I know of today." Albert Camus wrote in The Plague. I hope Humanists don’t openly try to get themselves venerated as saints, but simply get on with life. A saint by nature is something ultra-human, and better than other people. Humanists should just be good people, period. In Cornwall, there is a proverb that goes, "There are more saints in Cornwall than in Heaven." Most surprising saint of all award - Pontius Pilate, recognised by the Egyptian Coptic Church It’s believed that Saints corpses remain uncorrupted after death, but monks kept food well preserved. Today, we all have too many preservatives in our bodies, and we are likely to decompose more slowly too, (if not cremated).

SOURCES: (Other than mentioned in the text); Brockhampton Reference - DICTIONARY OF SAINTS. 1996 CHAMBERS DICTIONARY OF BELIEFS & RELIGIONS 1992. Margaret Pepper (editor) DICTIONARY OF RELIGIOUS QUOTATIONS. Andre Deutsche (1989) Gordon Thomas - THE TRIAL - Corgi 1987.

Arthur Chappell