“Only God can make saints!”
Yes, indeed. To deny the need for God’s grace for sanctification is heresy. The Catholic Church doesn’t even claim to be the primary agent for the transformation; the best the Church can allege in any particular case is an “assist” or a “save”.
By canonizing some of the faithful, i.e., by solemnly proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace, the Church recognizes the power of the Spirit of holiness within her and sustains the hope of believers by proposing the saints to them as models and intercessors (cf. Lumen Gentium 40, 48-51). “The saints have always been the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult moments in the Church’s history” (John Paul II, Christifideles Laici 16:3). Indeed, “holiness is the hidden source and infallible measure of her apostolic activity and missionary zeal”(CL 17:3).
In fact, it would be truer to express the dynamics the other way around. The Church doesn’t make saints; rather, saints make the Church.
Defending the communion and intercession of the saints takes some work, especially if you’re doing it “on the fly”. There are several related issues: How do we know that the Blessed Mother, saints and angels can “hear” our prayers? Are they omnipresent? Isn’t our prayer supposed to be directed to God alone? Is there Scriptural evidence to back this up? What about proofs from the Fathers?
Sainthood and sanctification
The best place to begin is with sainthood itself, to understand what it means and how it fits into the economy of salvation. In discussing the relationship of works to faith, I said in passing that “faith is the necessary first step to justification, which goes hand in hand with sanctification”. Now is a good time to delve into this a little further.
The word “saint” itself comes from the Latin sanctus, which translates the Greek hagios (“holy; holy one”). Sanctitas combines and conveys two ideas, one of separation or detachment from the mundane, profane world (hagiosyne or sacer) and one of firmness or dedication to God (hosiotes or sancitus). Holiness isn’t goodness per se, but rather so far as one is dedicated to God, Who is good, and to His work, which is also good.
Holiness, besides being an attribute of God, is also used of individuals in Scripture (e.g. Elisha [2 Kgs 4:9], Daniel [Dan 5:11], St. John the Baptist [Mk 6:20]) and of groups of people (e.g. the Hebrews [Ex 22:31]), especially of the holy people who rose from their tombs on Good Friday (Mt 27:52-53). In the letters of the New Testament, the people of the new Christian communities are referred to as hagioi; the identity is especially strong in Revelation.
Martin Luther’s conception of justification, which most of Protestant Christianity has adopted, was essentially juridical. In his construction, Man is intrinsically corrupt, unjust and sinful; justification is therefore the imputation of Christ’s justice, which covers our own injustice. On the upside, sanctification is no longer a concern, since all that’s needed is confidence in the certainty of one’s salvation; on the downside, you can’t assert such a doctrine without calling into question God’s truth, since it involves God pretending the sins aren’t there.
In its sixth session (Jan. 13, 1547), the Council of Trent dogmatically defined justification as the “translation from that state in which man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace and of the adoption of the sons of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Savior” (Decree Concerning Justification, ch. 4; cf. Col. 1:12-14).
In Catholic justification, justification isn’t simply a blanket covering our sins or an executive pardon. Rather, when Scripture speaks of forgiveness, it uses the language of eradication:
- Washing away (Ps 50:3; Is 43:25);
- Removing (2 Sam 2:13; 1 Chr 21:8; Mic 7:18);
- Taking away (Jn 1:29);
- Setting it far aside (Ps 103:12);
- Purifying (Ps 50:4; Is 1:16; Ez 36:25; Ac 22:16; 1 Cor 6:11; Heb 1:3; 1 Jn 1:7);
- Sending away (Ps 31:1, 84:3; Mt 9:2, 6; Lk 7:47 et seq., Jn 20:23; Mt 26:28; Eph 1:7).
On the positive side, there’s a generation of a new life in the sinner (Jn 3:5; Tit 3:5 et seq.), so that he is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15); it’s an inner renewal (Eph 4:23 et seq.), a translation from death to life (1 Jn 3:14) and from darkness to light (Col 1:13; Eph 5:8). In justification, Man forms a bond of community and friendship with God Permanent community of Man w/ God (Jn 14:23, 15:5) and participates in the Divine nature (2 Pt 1:4).
All this is the result of sanctifying grace, which sanctifies the soul (1 Cor 6:11), bestowing a supernatural beauty on it (“the image of the Son of God”; Rom 8:29, Gal 4:19) which is a reflection of God’s Glory (Heb 1:3). Sanctifying grace restores our friendship with God (Jn 15:14 et seq.; cf. Wis 7:14, Eph 2:19, Rom 5:10), and establishes us as co-heirs with Christ through adoption (Titus 3:7; Rom 8:15-17; Gal 4:5-7; John 1:12 et seq.; 1 Jn 3:1, 2, 9) by building within us temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16; cf. Rom 5:5, 8:11, 1 Cor 6:19, Jn 14:23, 2 Cor 6:16). This isn’t possible through our own unaided efforts: “For men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).
To believe in the communion and intercession of saints, then, you have to believe first that there is such a thing as a saint, that God can and does make saints out of ordinary people. Second, you have to connect faith in Christ with that belief; if He can make saints out of a cowardly braggart like St. Peter, an obsessive zealot like St. Paul, a roisterer like St. Camillus de Lellis and a high-society debutante like St. Teresa of Avila, he can make one out of you as well.
Point to remember: Sainthood is the result of justification through God’s sanctifying Grace.