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Expert Answer Forum

by Catherine Frakas 08 Apr 2002

saints and prayers QUESTION from Mr. Michael Stead October 26, 1999 Could you tell me what was the origin of the term saint. I have heard that it meant believer and that it is only in later centuries that it has come to mean people on the official list of saints. I would also like to know if there is a good index of prayers by the date of composition. I am trying to help organise an evening service for December 31st 1999/January 1st 2000, and would like to include a prayer from every century of the christian era.
ANSWER by Mrs. Suzanne Fortin on October 30, 1999 Dear Mr. Stead
The term saint was first used to refer to the members of the Christian community. The word saint comes from the Latin word sanctus, which means holy. Christians are holy not because they possess superior moral virtue, but because they are set apart and dedicated to God. God's holiness underscores his transcendance, that is, his separation from the world. Christians in the same way are set apart from the world and associated to God for His purpose.
Early on in the history of the Church, the word saint came to be applied to martyrs. Martyr means witness. Their supreme witness to the Gospel was seen as a guarantee of heavenly destiny. The earliest record of devotion to a martyr is The Martyrdom of Polycarp (156 A.D.), Bishop of Smyrna and a Church Father who was a disciple of St. John the Apostle. This document describes his flock collecting his bones which, the author says, are more precious than jewels of a great price. The faithful wanted to bury his body and mark his grave so that they could commemorate his death.his death each year.
For a couple of centuries, the term saint was applied to martyrs only. With the legalization of Christianity in 313 A.D. and the subsequent end of persecution, sainthood was extended to confessors (those who do not die for the faith, but undergo severe hardship for it) and virgins. The ascetic and monastic life was seen as a substitute for physical death, therefore, monks and hermtis were regarded as confessors. This is the period where holy men like Athanasius, Hilarion, Augustine and Martin of Tours were recognized as saints.
In the 4th century, the cult of saints really took off -- not that it was non-existent before, but the legalization of Christianity opened up new possibilities for honouring saints, and their veneration was quite extensive. The cult of saints was initially centered on the saints' tomb or grave. Cemeteries, in the Roman world, were normally located outside of city walls. And so, on the saint's feast day, swarms of Christians would gather at the cemetery and hold some kind of ceremony, sometimes even a ceremonial feast. The relics of a saint can possess great powers of healing, and so Christians from all over the countryside might come for the saint's feast. These shrines soon became veritable complexes of devotion. For instance, in the fifth century, the North African city of Tebessa had a complex dedicated to St. Crispina, with a 450-foot long Pilgrim's Way, triumphal arches, courtyards, porticos and city streets. St. Paulinus of Nola built a similar complex to St. Felix. It was so elaborate that some people took it for another town.
As you can see, the cult of saints presented interesting opportunities for economic development -- new construction, new markets and new prestige. These opportunities unfortunately could lead to abuse. Churches began to bury relics under altars for spiritual reasons, but it became prestigious for a church to possess the relics of a saint who was buried in a distant land. Churches would rival each other in their finds. Huge amounts of money would be spent to obtain the most sought-after relics. As you might suspect, this led to the traffic of false relics.
Eventually, the bishop became responsible for promoting the legitamite cult of a saint. He would approve the cult and elevate the body to a special place of veneration, adding prestige to the saint's status. It was an attempt to shift the focus of the faithful to a legitamite cult. Notwithstanding these new develops, the laity still venerated unapproved saints. They were drawn to the graves where miracles were reported, miracles being regarded as a sure sign of the saint's presence in heaven.
In 993 A.D., the first papal canonizations took place. This procedure was developed partially in response to the traffic of relics and the fabrication of saints. But it was also requested by the laity to further enhance the reputation of a local cult. As canonization did not prohibit any contemporary practices, abuses associated with relics and false cults continued. The popes of the 12th and the 13th century tried to suppress false cults, but finally the only thing left to be done was to reserve the proclamation of new saints to the Holy See. This was believed to have occurred in the reign of Pope Innocent III (1199-1216).
Concerning your request for a list of prayers. I don't know of any historical collections of prayers, but I suggest that you try to look up old liturgies. I know that not everyone has access to libraries which contain this kind of material, but if you do, it could be very useful. And don't ignore Eastern liturgies. I also suggest the Book of Catholic Quotations edited by John Chapin and published by Farrar, Straus and Cudahy in 1956. There are several snippets of prayers from various centuries.
Perhaps readers could suggest useful websites and collections of prayers from the past.
God Bless, Suzanne Fortin
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