December: A brief history of saints in the Church

Orioli, Pietro di Francesco degli; The Nativity with Saints; The National Gallery, London;

When our Lord died, He did not formally establish a canon of sacred writings, explicitly define canon law, or establish a process for the canonization of saints. He didn’t even write a Gospel. He established a Church to do that. Why God decided to put human beings in charge of these important matters is a mystery, but He knew what He was doing, and, after all, He understands grace better than we do.

After Pentecost, the Catholic Church certainly wasn’t occupied with establishing a canonization process; it was occupied with the God-given task of spreading the Gospel. But it didn’t take long for Catholics to start honoring deceased Catholics, starting with the Twelve Apostles and other early leaders and continuing with the many martyrs under Roman persecution. The Church calendar of saints in December provides an excellent overview of the history of canonization, that is, the process the Church has developed over the millennia to name individuals as saints.

The Jewish Prophet Nahum is commemorated by the Church on December 1, followed by five other Jewish prophets—Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Malachi, and Micah—throughout the month. All of these men not only inspired their Jewish countrymen to a greater faith in God, they predicted that God would come to save His people (whether or not they perfectly understood how He would do that). For example, read Nahum 1:15, Habakkuk, ch. 3, Zephaniah 3:14-20, Haggai 2:7, Malachi 3:1, and Micah 5:2-5. Although the Church does not recognize these Jewish men with the title of “saint”, it does recognize their prophetic witness to the God-Man, Jesus Christ, though they never met Him face to face.

Christian martyrs were the first ones to be recognized by their fellow Christians as holy men and women, but that didn’t start with the Roman emperor Nero’s official persecution of Christians which began in A.D. 64. After all, the great Saint Paul writes of his repeated brushes with death and persecution from Jewish opponents in his letters. But the greatest persecution of Christians clearly lasted over the two centuries between the time of the Emperor Nero’s prohibition and the Emperor Constantine’s edict which ended the persecution in the year 313.

The persecution of Christians was resumed several decades later by the Emperor Julian (often called “the Apostate” because he was raised Christian and became virulently anti-Catholic during his reign as emperor). One of the people martyred during Julian’s reign was Saint Bibiana (also spelled Viviana), who has been celebrated by the Church on December 2 for centuries. Bibiana came from a very wealthy family, saw her parents executed for their faith in Christ, and was deprived of the family wealth for refusing to worship the Roman gods. The local governor waited a few months, certain that experience of living in poverty would convince her to give up her faith. It didn’t. Bibiana was martyred in the year 361.

In time, the Church began to recognize the powerful witness of great Christian writers who could explain the faith to others. Generally called the Fathers and Mothers of the Church today, these men and women explained orthodox belief long before a universal catechism of Church teachings had been written. Though not all the Fathers and Mothers are considered saints by the Church today, most are. One of the last men to be considered a Father of the Church is Saint John of Damascus, who is commemorated by the Church on December 4. John was a monk and priest who explained, for example, that there is a difference between worship, which we owe to God alone, and veneration, which we offer to the saints.

On December 6, we celebrate a favorite saint of children: Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra from the fourth century. Nicholas is a rarity among early Church saints because he did not die as a martyr and was not a Father of the Church. But he and saints like him—most notably the bishop Saint Martin of Tours (celebrated last month on November 11)—helped Christians realize that one could be a saint of the Church without being a martyr and without having generated a paper trail of brilliant theological insights.

As monasticism spread throughout the Christian world, monks and nuns became great witnesses of holiness. For example, Saint John the Silent (December 7) was a monk and bishop known for (you guessed it) his ability to remain silent. Saint Romaric (December 8) was a wealthy man left it all behind to become a monk and later an abbot. Both men were so inspirational to those who knew them that the Church acclaimed them as saints.

But you don’t have to be a priest, vowed religious, theologian, or martyr to be a saint, as Saint Adelaide of Bellich (December 6) and Saint Juan Diego (December 9) prove. Adelaide was the queen of Italy when a powerful man poisoned her husband; she was literally rescued from being forced to marry the son of the man who killed her husband by another king, whom she did marry. It wasn’t the dramatic aspects of her life that made her saint however; it was the gracious, gentle way she lived her life as a wife, mother, and queen. On the other hand, Saint Juan Diego, while well-known as the recipient of a vision of Our Lady of Guadalupe, is not as well-known as a simple, holy man who spent the rest of his life telling people about that vision and encouraging them to draw close to the Mother of God.

The Church began to recognize many founders and members of religious orders from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries as saints. That includes the nun Saint Mary Joseph Rossello (December 8) and the missionary Saint Francis Xavier (December 3).

In the sixteenth century, the Church added a new title to some saints: Doctor of the Church. These saints were particularly known for their outstanding contribution to the teaching of the Church. This group includes Saint Peter Canisius (celebrated on December 21), who earned the title through his efforts to explain Catholic teachings during the particularly contentious time of the Protestant Revolt.

As the twentieth century gave birth to many Christian martyrs through Communism, Nazism, and other totalitarian regimes, the cycle has come back full circle. In that century, millions of men, women, and children were killed outright, imprisoned, and persecuted throughout their lives because they rejected the atheistic teachings of their own country’s government. But as the Church has shown time and again, there is not only one path to holiness. Who knows how the men and women of the twenty-first century will grow in holiness and become the future saints of the Church?