Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Catholic Activity: The Veneration of Saints



Prep Time






For Ages



Activity Types (1)

Linked Activities (0)

Files (0)

Linked Recipes (0)

Linked Prayers (0)


Feasts (3)

Seasons (0)

Father Francis Weiser gives a history of venerating the saints.



Interwoven with the festive seasons and the cycles of weekly liturgy is the liturgical system of saints' days. From the beginnings of Christianity there has been no doubt (as there was none among the Jews) that persons who led a life of great holiness or suffered and died for the cause of God enjoyed the glories of a special reward in Heaven and deserved highest esteem and veneration from the faithful on earth. The Bible, in the book of the Apocalypse, mentions various kinds of "saints": the virgins (14, 1-5), the prophets and Apostles (18, 20), the martyrs for the word of God (6, 9), the martyrs of Jesus (17, 6), and all those who died in the Lord and whose good works follow them (14, 13).1

MARY — A great and popular veneration of Mary, the Mother of God (Theotokos), existed in the early Church long before any special feast was instituted in her honor. To her is accorded a veneration (hyperdulia) that transcends the honor given to any other saint (dulia).2 Her dignity as the Mother of the Incarnate Word of God, and the spiritual privileges conferred on her by reason of this dignity, raise her beyond all created spirits to the exalted position of "Queen of all Saints." On the other hand, she still remains a mere creature in all her glory. The Church has never "adored" Mary or accorded her any honors that are reserved for Divinity.

Wall paintings in the Roman catacombs, dating from the first half of the second century, picture her holding the Divine Child, usually with a Biblical scene for background. The earliest apocrypha (legendary Christian literature) of the second century bear eloquent testimony to the veneration that was accorded Mary at the very dawn of Church history. The first known hymns and poetical prayers to her were written by the deacon of the church of Ephesus, Saint Ephrem the Syrian (373). His twenty madrase (poems) on Mary breathe not only tender devotion, but classic beauty as well. Here is a translation of a stanza of one of his hymns:

Blessed are you, Mary, for in your soul dwelled the
Holy Spirit of Whom David sang.
Blessed are you who were deemed worthy to be greeted
by the Father through Gabriel's mouth.
Blessed are you who were made to be the living chariot of
the Son of God.

He stood on your knees,
He lay in your arms,
He drank from the fountains of your breasts.
He rested, a baby, in your embrace:
But His gown was the flaming light of Divinity.

The feasts of our Lady observed in the universal Church are quite numerous. They form a radiant pattern of festive commemorations through the year. Some of them have affected the public life of communities and countries for many centuries. Others are celebrated only within the confines of liturgical service. All of them cast the light and warmth of their blessing into the hearts of devout Christians everywhere.

Five festivals, called the "major feasts of Mary," were kept as public holydays (and holidays) up to the present century. It was as recently as 1918 that the new Code of Canon Law dropped three of them from the list of prescribed holydays. In the liturgy, however, they still retain their place, and rank as major feasts. Many ancient customs connected with them have survived to our day.

MARTYRS — In addition to the Biblical saints, Christians immediately began to honor the memory of those who died in the persecutions. This was done on a local scale within each Christian community. The tombs of the martyrs were held in high veneration. On the anniversary of their deaths Mass was celebrated over their graves and a sermon preached. Thus it happened, for instance, that Saint Pionius and his companions were seized by Roman soldiers while conducting the anniversary service at the tomb of Saint Polycarp of Smyrna (Asia Minor) in 250 and were themselves put to death and became martyrs of Christ.4

The custom of calling the death date of a martyr his "birthday" (Dies Natalis) originated in the early centuries. It expresses the truth that any Christian who remained loyal to the Lord unto the death of martyrdom is truly born into eternal glory at the hour of his execution. The official calendars of both the Eastern and Western Churches have retained this practice to our day. When they announce the "birthday" of a saint it means the day of his death. The only exceptions are the natural birthdays of the three persons who were born into this world without original sin: Christ, Mary, and John the Baptist. Of these three the Church celebrates their earthly nativity as well as the day of death.

During the persecutions in the Roman Empire each community commemorated only its local martyrs. Their names and the dates of their execution were carefully recorded, and each church kept the official list of its heroes. In larger places like Rome, Christian notaries were appointed for the various districts (regiones) of the city. It was their task to observe and record all cases of executions of Christians in their particular district. Thus came into existence the venerable catalogues of martyrs in the various cities of the Roman Empire. They were not only read at divine service, but were often engraved on tablets of marble and set up as a public notice for the faithful, to remind them to honor and venerate their local saints.5

Concerning the graves of the early martyrs, there is no doubt that the great majority of them remained well identified. According to Roman law, up to the time of Diocletian (305), even executed criminals were entitled to an honorable burial, for earthly justice was satisfied by the death of the guilty person. The body usually was granted to relatives or friends to be duly buried.6 Thus the tombs of the saints were naturally well known to the bishops and faithful, for in many cases they themselves had selected the burial place, given the last honors to the sacred bodies, and laid them to rest with their own hands. A tradition based on the certitude of such direct evidence is not easily lost even in the course of centuries. This was confirmed by the results of recent research and excavations in various places.

However, with the increasing number and scope of persecutions, many martyrs remained unlisted, and all anniversaries could not be kept even within a particular community. For this reason only the outstanding few received an established annual feast of memorial services. All the others shared one great feast in common, to give due honor and recognition to their memory every year. This was the "Feast of All Martyrs," instituted in the Eastern Church in the fifth century, and adopted by Rome in the seventh century. Its title was later changed to "Feast of All Saints."

OTHER SAINTS — In the third century the bishops began also listing the names of persons who did not reach the point of execution but died a natural death after having suffered persecution for the sake of Christ, like Saint Nicholas, who had been in prison for many years but was finally released in 312 at the end of the persecutions. These saints were added to the list under the name of "confessors," because they had heroically confessed their faith before the tribunals.7 This term has remained in official use up to the present. It now designates any male saint who through the practice of heroic virtue gave witness to Christ. Holy women are identified in liturgical usage as "martyrs" or "virgins" or "virgins and martyrs" or "neither virgins nor martyrs" (a somewhat unfortunate negative term meaning those who became saints as wives and mothers).

In the Western Church, the conversion of the Germanic races brought about an extension of the local calendars of saints. Having no Christian past of their own, they adopted the ritual books of the Roman Church and its list of saints as well. It was not long, however, before they added the names of their own national heroes of God to the annual calendar of saints'' feasts and thus prepared the way for a more universal calendar. In the course of the succeeding centuries the Roman list of saints'' days was gradually widened by the authorities of the Church; it came to include saints of other local churches and other nations, until the Roman Missal and martyrology became truly representative of the universal Church.8

In the Mass text, however, a relic of the original practice remains, for the saints mentioned in the Canon of the Mass are taken from the ancient list of the Italian community.9 The Oriental Rites were even slower than Rome in adopting the feasts of "foreign" martyrs and saints. Up to this day but few saints of Western Church are celebrated in the East.10


GENERAL — In medieval times a much greater number of saints'' days were holydays of obligation than are now. First among them ranked the five major feasts of Mary, of which only two have remained prescribed holydays. The days of all the Apostles were raised to the rank of public holydays in 932.11 The feasts of Saint Michael, Saint Stephen, Saint John the Baptist, and other saints of the early centuries were celebrated in the past as holydays among all Christian nations. Of all these feasts, there remain today as prescribed holydays the following five: Saint Joseph''s Day (March 19), Peter and Paul''s Day (June 29), Assumption of Mary (August 15), All Saints (November 1), and the Immaculate Conception (December 8).12

In the United States, however, two of these saints'' feasts (Saint Joseph and Peter and Paul) are exempt from the obligation by dispensation of the Holy See.13

PATRONS FEASTS — Still another group of holydays is made up of the feasts of those saints who were (and are) special patron saints in certain localities. This group comprises hundreds of saints, often little known to the rest of the world. Every parish, diocese, ecclesiastical province, every religious institution and community has its particular heavenly patron. So have most nations, states, regions, cities, and towns. In each place the feast of the patron saint used to be kept as a true holyday.14 The present canon law provides for the continuation of this practice, though only from the liturgical aspect; the day of the patron saint may be celebrated as a religious solemnity but not as a holyday of obligation (unless prescribed for the whole Church).15 In many countries people are still accustomed to the patron''s feast as it used to be kept in past centuries. It is now usually held on the Sunday following the liturgical feast. They observe it with great devotion and rejoicing. The whole day, after the service, is spent in celebration consisting of processions, parades, and traditional pageants, fairs, amusements, banquets, and dancing. This festival is called Kirmes in German, Bucsu in Hungarian, Kermes in Slovak, Pokrove in Russian and Ukrainian, Fête Patronale in French, "Fiesta del Patrono" in Spanish.16

A permanent civic testimony to the patronage of saints is the names of countless towns and cities in all Christian lands. In the United States over ninety cities, towns, and counties bear the names of saints. As might be expected, the most frequent title is that of the Blessed Virgin (St. Marys, Santa Maria, etc.); then follow the names John (St. Johns, San Juan, etc.) and Saint Clair (St. Clare, Santa Clara, etc.).

The most significant patronal feasts are, of course, the days of national patron saints which are celebrated by the faithful of an entire country or race. Liturgically speaking, they are in most cases "secondary" patrons because the Blessed Virgin is the primary patron in the majority of Christian countries. In Catholic nations, and in Catholic sections of Protestant countries, these days are still observed, in some cases even as legal holidays.

NAME DAY — There is a third group of saints'' days that are observed as holydays, but only privately, within the family and among friends and neighbors. It was a general custom before the Reformation, and still is in Catholic countries, to celebrate not so much the birthday, but, rather, the feast of the saint whose name was received in baptism. This "baptismal saint" is considered a special and personal patron all through life. Children are made familiar with the history and legend of "their own" saint, are inspired by his life and example, pray to him every day, and gratefully accept his loving help in all their needs. It is a beautiful custom, this close relationship of an individual to his personal patron saint in Heaven.

On the feast of such a saint, called "Name Day," all who bear that name usually attend Mass. Upon their return from the church the whole family congratulates them, offering not only good wishes but little presents as well. Then all sit down to a festive breakfast at the gaily decorated table. For the one whose feast day it is the rest of the day is free from regular chores and duties in household or farming and is spent in the manner and mood of a true holiday.17

The custom of giving children the names of Christian saints dates from the first millennium. It was especially in the Frankish kingdoms (France and Germany) that people began a more general practice of assuming for themselves, or bestowing upon their children, the names of Apostles and other Biblical saints, of early martyrs and confessors. By the thirteenth century this custom was fairly widespread on the continent of Europe.

In Ireland, however, the Gaelic population did not follow this custom. It is interesting to note that no Christian names are found in the ancient Irish documents. No names of native saints, not even the name of their beloved patron, Saint Patrick, were given to their children in those early centuries. This fact is explained by the devout and humble attitude of the Gaelic people. They would have considered it an act of irreverence to claim such hallowed names for their own. This practice remained an established tradition until after the advent of the Normans. The Continental practice began to prevail by the thirteenth century.

Some Gaelic clans, however, called themselves the "servants" (gil, mal) of our Lord and the saints. Hence the modern surnames like Gilmartin (servant of Saint Martin), Malone (servant of Saint John), Gilpatrick (servant of Saint Patrick), Gilmary (servant of Mary), Gilchrist (servant of Christ), Gillis (servant of Jesus).18

Another interesting custom is that of the Spanish-speaking people naming boys Jesus after the sacred name of the Lord. All other Christian nations have refrained from doing so through a feeling of special reverence (just as the popes have always refrained from assuming the name of Peter). In similar fashion the Irish used to set apart and keep sacred the original name of Mary (Muire), never bestowing it on their daughters in this form. All girls who received the name of the Blessed Virgin bore it in other forms (mostly Maire).

It is a general custom in Spanish-speaking countries to use not only the name of Mary but also some of her liturgical titles and attributes as girls'' names, like Dolores (Our Lady of Sorrows), Luz (Our Lady of Light), Paz (Our Lady of Peace), Concepcion or Concha (Immaculate Conception), Asunción (Assumption), Pura (Virgin Most Pure), Victoria (Our Lady of Victory), Consuelo (Our Lady of Good Counsel), Gracia (Our Lady of Grace), Stella (Star of the Sea), and others. Some of these Spanish names, like Dolores, Grace, Stella, and Victoria, have been adopted into English and American usage.

A similar custom prevails among the Chaldeans and Syrians where, besides our Lady''s name (Miriam), other names referring to Mary are given to girls in baptism: Kamala (Mary''s perfection), Jamala (her beauty), ''Afifa (her purity), Farida (her uniqueness), and similar words expressing her attributes.

In our day, when even Christian parents often choose their children's names without regard to hallowed traditions, the Church still strongly recommends the bestowing of a saint''s name in baptism, at least as middle name whenever the chosen first name is not of Christian origin or significance.19


PILGRIMAGES — By the first centuries it was already a general custom to visit the graves of martyrs, especially on the days of their anniversaries, and to spend the whole night in prayerful vigil at their tombs.20 Whole populations of regions and cities would thus honor the martyrs in the Christian empire of Rome, in both the East and West. Since the graves of those saints were usually located out of town, this act of veneration constituted a true pilgrimage. In addition, there are hundreds of testimonies and examples in the writings of the early centuries describing private pilgrimages of individual Christians to the tombs of saints in far-distant countries.21

This trend of "pilgrimage" to the martyrs' shrines persisted beyond death in ancient Rome. People wanted to be buried as close as possible to the grave of a hero of God.22 In the catacombs of Rome, in Italy, France, Spain, Africa, and the Near East, wherever modern archaeologists discover or investigate the tombs of martyrs, they find the ground all around honeycombed with hundreds of Christian graves. In 1955, when Franciscan archaeologists in Nazareth excavated the surroundings of the old church of the Annunciation, they found a very large number of "Loculi" (burial niches), many of them still containing parts of skeletons of Christians who had been buried there from the fourth to the seventh centuries.23

In medieval times the practice of pilgrimages to the saints' tombs, or to famous shrines possessing a relic of some saint, became one of the favorite spiritual exercises of pious Christians everywhere. Dressed in pilgrims' garb, men and women would traverse half a continent to pray at the shrine of a favorite saint Sometimes they combined a number of such pilgrimages in one journey.

The most famous pilgrims' goal (besides the Holy Land) has, of course, always remained the tomb of Saint Peter in Rome, together with all the other sacred places of the holy city. Next to it rank the sanctuaries of the Blessed Virgin, especially her famous national shrines in various countries. In recent times there have been added the two international centers of pilgrimages in honor of Mary: Lourdes and Fatima.24

Great places of international pilgrimage in medieval times were the shrines of Saint James the Apostle (Santiago de Compostela) in Spain, the tomb of Saint Nicholas in Bari, Italy, the shrine of the "Three Holy Kings" in Cologne, and the sanctuary of Saint Mary Magdalene in Marseille.25

RELICS — The Christian cult of saints' relics originated from the practice of carefully and reverently collecting and interring the remains of the ancient martyrs, of which many instances are mentioned in the Roman martyrology. Very early, reverence to the saints expressed itself in a special cult of their relics.26 The popular veneration soon also extended to the dust of their graves and to objects that had been touched by the relics. The ancient Fathers, especially Saint Augustine (430), already had to warn Christians against superstitious practices which easily crept into the cult of saints.27

In medieval times, when the genuine or legendary bodies (or part relics) of many saints were brought to the newly converted countries of the North (central Europe, Germany, Holland, England), a period of enthusiastic devotion to relics ensued in those regions. The bodies were received with great ceremony by the ecclesiastical and civil authorities, thousands of people gathered for the occasion, solemn processions escorted the relics into town all church bells rang, and great festivities were held. It was a general custom to dress the skeletons in appropriate and ornate vestments, decorate them with jewelry, gold, and silver, and expose them to the view and veneration of the faithful in gorgeous glass caskets at the altars of churches.28

Besides these official forms of veneration of relics, people practiced a thousand personal cult actions, especially with small relics or pseudo relics they had obtained for private use. Many of these features of veneration were objectionable, if not downright superstitious.29 The Church authorities had to issue stern prohibitions against abuses in all centuries past. Today such abuses have practically disappeared, and the cult of relics is now strictly regulated by the Code of Canon Law.30

PATRONAGE — Biographies and legends of saints were universally read in the Middle Ages, or handed down by word of mouth by preachers and parents. Soon the characteristic features of a saint's life, or some detail of his legend, produced the conviction that he would be especially willing and helpful if invoked in similar conditions or circumstances. Thus originated the various "fields of patronage" ascribed to individual saints. In some cases the Church has officially and liturgically acknowledged certain patronages. Most of them, however, are due to popular feeling and inclination.

Thus we have, in popular tradition, heavenly patrons for all individual vocations and occupations (including alchemists, converted criminals, and treasure hunters); for all kinds of groups and organizations (including bowling clubs, skaters, mountain climbers); for justice and law (oath patrons, patrons of prisoners, executions, and executioners, against false accusations, against thieves, murderers, robbers, for just and speedy trials); against sickness and death (hundreds of saints, each one for a special kind of disease or danger); for animals (mostly domestic, but also for deer, hares, birds, fish); for all needs of the farmer (propitious weather, rain, grains, fruit, herbs, vegetables); against all manner of calamity (drowning, shipwreck, fire, floods, earthquakes, hail, storm, traffic accidents).31

The above are only a few examples of the many "fields of patronage" cultivated by the faithful for many centuries now and involving thousands of historical or legendary saints. If practiced in the right spirit, based on the supernatural fact of the "communion of saints,"32 and without unreasonable or superstitious elements, this devotion to the saints'' patronage is a powerful help and a great consolation in temporal and spiritual needs. The fact that some patronages are based on mere legendary events does not infringe on the spiritual aspect of our petition nor on the saints' power to intercede for us.33

LITURGY AND LEGEND — As the devotional cults of relics or patrons, so also many feasts of the year, especially those of the early saints, are connected with traditional observances based on mere legendary claims.34 Hence it might seem to the less-informed reader that the popular veneration of the saints is but a sentimental tribute originating from unhistorical, and sometimes ridiculous, legendary beliefs.

Actually, these traditional observances rest on the bedrock of liturgical piety, which has always remained the source of popular celebration. Every true Christian knows from childhood that the basis of his devotion to the saints is not some fictional event or legendary patronage (although he might celebrate them, too), but the very real and historical fact of the saints'' heroic service to God and love of men, the radiant perfection of their lives in Christian virtue and faith.35

The liturgical prayers hardly ever mention any of the legendary elements with which popular tradition abounds, but quote the historical facts of martyrdom or heroic virtue and perfect faith. It was on this basis only that the Church tolerated those additional expressions of legendary observance outside the liturgy. The liturgical Mass prayers of the various feasts, which may be found at the end of the following sections, will serve as illustration and proof.

1 Sanctus, DACL, 15.1 (1950), 373 ff.
2 St. Thomas, Summa Theol., III, Q. 25, a. 5, II.2, q. 103.
3 S. Ephrem Syri Hymni et Sermones, ed. T. J. Lang, Mecheln, 1882, I, 587 (Syrian text and Latin trans.).
4 DACL 10.2 (1932), 2430 ff.
5 H. Leclercq, Acts des Martyrs, DACL, 1.1 (1920), 378 ff.
6 Digesta Juris Romani, XVIIIL, 24, 3.
7 The liturgical veneration of confessors started about A.D. 500: DACL, 15.1 (1950), 432.
8 Kellner, 215 f.
9 About the "foreign" saints in the Roman Canon see Jgn MS, II, 210 ff., 306 ff.
10 See note 8.
11 DACL, 1.2 (1924), 2634.
12 CIC, 1247, 1.
13 Responsum, December 31, 1885; Balt., CV.
14 DACL, 13.2 (1938), 2514 ff.
15 CIC, 1247, 2, 1278.
16 F. Cabrol, Fêtes Locales, DACL, 5.1 (1922), 1422 ff.; VL, 156 ff.; Geramb, 154 ff. (Der Kirchtag).
17 RCF, 28 f., 30 f.
18 P. Woulfe, Irish Names and Surnames, Dublin, 1923, 7 ff.
19 RR, De Sacramento Baptismi, I, 30, 70.
20 DACL, 10.2 (1932), 2434 ff.
21 VdM, 547 (Der Märtyrerkult), 577 ff. (Die Totenmähler).
22 H. Leclercq, Ad Sanctos, DACL, 1.1 (1920), 479 ff.; VdM, 571 ff.
23 Personal observation of the author at Nazareth, June 1955.
24 H. Leclercq, Pélerinages aux Lieux saints, DACL, 14.1 (1939), 65 ff.
25 Gugitz, II, 33; VL, 63 ff.
26 H. Leclercq, Reliques et Reliquaires, DACL, 14.2 (1948), 2294 ff.
27 VdM, 596.
28 VH, 138 ff.
29 VH, 135 ff. (Die Heiligen im Aberglauben).
30 CIC, 1255,2, 1276, 1281,1, 1282,2, 1283, 1286, 1289, 2326.
31 VH, 118 ff. (Besondere Schutzheilige).
32 H. Leclercq, Communion des Saints, DACL, 3.2 (1948), 2447 ff.
33 VH, 9 ff.
34 VH, 72 f. (Der Wunderglaube); VdM, 610 ff. (Wunderglaube).
35 VH, 31 ff. (Die Form der kirchlichen Heiligenverehrung).

Activity Source: Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Francis X. Weiser, S.J., Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1958