Making Saints?

    Does the Orthodox Church “make Saints”?  How does it go about the process of declaring who is a saint?  Is it the same process followed by the Roman Catholic Church requiring several steps including the verification of miracles?  From the beginning of Christianity, the group of the disciples identified themselves as “saints”, the holy people of God.  St. Paul begins most of his epistles with a similar greeting:  To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi…(Philippians 1:1)   There began a slow change in this understanding as some of these early Christians renounced the faith under persecution by the Romans and others suffered martyrdom for their love of Christ.  Who were truly these saints in Jesus Christ? The epistle of St. James states that the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.  (James 5:16)  Who is such a righteous person that his or her prayers have great power?  For these early believers the martyrs who were tortured, crucified, burned alive, and beheaded were honored as the truly holy people of God and as the righteous people whose prayers have power.  From the 2nd century there is written evidence that these earliest Christians honored the memories of these martyrs on the anniversaries of their martyrdoms at the place of their burial, collected and honored their remains, and repeated the stories of their courageous actions.  (read the record of the martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch or St. Polycarp of Smyrna)  In these early centuries, there was no formal process to declare who deserved the title saint, the very fact of their martyrdom was proof enough that they were now in the presence of God. 

The Early Church

     With the legalization of Christianity by the Emperor St. Constantine in the 4th century the age of the martyrs came to an end but the Christians continued to recognize as role models in the Faith men and women who were outstanding in the faith, service and devotion to Jesus Christ and His Church.  The Church began to honor those who were Confessors of Christ, that is those who suffered by confessing their faith in Christ but were not killed.  Another group of Christians honored for their devotion to Christ were the ascetics, men and women who renounced the world to live in the remote desert to devote themselves to continual prayer, fasting, and spiritual warfare:  a voluntary martyrdom.  These Confessors and Ascetics were also honored as the holy people of God whose prayers had great power.  Since the witness of their lives were not as clear as that of the holy martyrs, they were venerated publicly only with the approval of the local bishop.  As early as the third century, St. Cyprian of Carthage (died 258), warned that special care be taken to investigate the lives of these holy people to prevent recognition and honor given to undeserving persons.  He even recommended that the circumstances of the deaths of the martyrs be closely examined to insure that they did, in fact, die for their faith in Jesus Christ.  There is an interesting story from the 4th century, related by St. Optatus, of a woman in the North African city of Carthage named Lucilla who was reprimanded by the Church for venerating the relics of a martyr whose claims to martyrdom had not been investigated and proved.

     The Church Today

The Orthodox Church to this day follows the same simple process of acknowledging what individuals were truly the holy people of God.  The Church does not “make saints” but after an investigation it determines, as far as it can determine, that a person lived a life pleasing to God, is now standing in the presence of God in heaven and whose prayers have great power in its effects.  (James 5:16)  The process is much less formal and legalistic than that practiced in the Roman Catholic Church.  The veneration of a saint begins with the people:  there is a growing sense among the people of the Church that an individual lived an outstanding Christian life.  A devotion to the person’s memory springs up among the people on the “grass roots” level:  stories of their lives are published in books and articles, people pray at their gravesites, miracles may be attributed to the prayers of the individual but are not required “proof” of holiness as in the Roman Church.     Due to this popular devotion to a person’s memory the council of bishops in that country will begin a formal investigation into the person’s life.  The investigation will seek to determine if the individual was Orthodox in their faith and led a holy life worthy of emulation.  Once this has been determined and approved the date for the glorification of the saint will be appointed.  The Council of Bishops will commission the writing of the service for the Saint’s feastday (usually the day of their death),   the painting of an icon, and the removal of the Saint’s relics from their grave and placement in a shrine.  On the actual day of the glorification of the Saint, a final Parastas will be celebrated for the Saint, the last time that we pray for the departed person before we officially being asking for their prayers for us.  The Decree of Glorification by the Council of Bishops is read followed by the celebration of Vespers and Matins for the Feast of the new Saint.  During the Matins service, the icon of the Saint and their relics are unveiled for the first time.  

      A recent example of this process can be seen in the glorification of a modern American saint:  St. John Maximovitch, archbishop of San Francisco.  Even before his death in 1966, Archbishop John was regarded as a holy bishop and even as a living saint.  After his death, devotion to his memory increased as books were published of his writings and of his life.  A constant stream of pilgrims visited his tomb to pray and stories of miraculous healings circulated.  After 25 years of this popular devotion to his memory, the Council of Bishops began a formal investigation into his life.  Finally on July 2, 1994, the 28th anniversary of his falling asleep in the Lord, a final Parastas was celebrated for him followed by the Vigil service for his feast, and the unveiling of his icon and relics for veneration by the faithful.

      In his writings, St. John of San Francisco summarizes the Orthodox Church’s veneration of saints:

The choir of saints pleasing to God grew unceasingly; in every place where there were Christians there appeared also its own ascetics.  However, the general life of Christians began to decline; spiritual burning began to grow faint; there was no longer that clear sense of what Divine righteousness is.  And so the general consciousness of the faithful could not always distinguish who was a righteous man and pleasing to God.  In some places there appeared dubious persons who by false ascetic exploits attracted a part of the flock.  For this reason the Church authority began to keep watch over the veneration of saints, showing concern to guard the flocks from superstition.  The life of ascetic revered by the faithful began to be investigated, and accounts of miracles to be verified.  Towards the time of the Baptism of Rus (988 A.D.), it had already been established that the acknowledgment of a new saint was to be performed by Church authority…After all, the Church authority only testified of sanctity…righteous men become saints not by the decree of the earthly Church authority, but by the mercy and grace of God.

Father Edward Pehanich


Logo