Some musings on “Patron Saints”

In ordinary daily usage we hear the phrase “patron saint”.  Thus St George is the patron saint of England.  St Piran is today often called the patron saint of Cornwall, a usage that was unknown within my memory, other than to antiquarians.  St Gertrude of Nivelle is sometimes called the patron saint of cats, a usage that seems to be no older than the 20th century.  Churches have patron saints, and even “patronal dinners”.  Countries have them.  Databases have them, since Pope John Paul II designated Isidore of Seville as the patron saint of the internet.

But what does it mean?  Who are these people?  How do you get to become a patron saint?  And is it for life? – eternal life, that is?  Well, I have a few ideas, and of course I welcome correction.  But this is what seems to be the case, and how it works, whether or not we believe in it.

A patron saint is a saint who can be particularly applied to for intercession with God on behalf of a church, a city, a country, or a particular trade, or other matter.  He or she is a saint whom the person praying supposes to have a particular interest in that subject, and therefore may be particularly interested in it.  The saint may be particularly interested in prayers relating to that subject, and particularly interested in raising the matter with God himself.

The thinking behind this reflects the reality of most human societies.  You can, in theory, write a letter to the king, the emperor, the president.  But in practice such letters go nowhere, unless you are a person of influence.  The king is remote, inaccessible.  Less remote, more accessible, are members of his court: your congressman, member of parliament, etc.  He may know the emperor, or at least meet him regularly.  He may have a  special interest in certain subjects, which he can therefore plead effectively for.  The president may know that such a person cannot be ignored, at least not without adverse headlines.  At the same time the courtier will know that each request costs him political capital.  Something for something is the rule of human life.  This is true even today.  The process corresponds to reality.

But is it true?  Can those deceased in Christ respond?  The classic response to this, at least from the Catholic Encyclopedia, is that of St. Jerome, in Contra Vigilantium 6 (PL 23, col.344):

If the Apostles and Martyrs, while still in the body, can pray for others, at a time when they must still be anxious for themselves, how much more after their crowns, victories, and triumphs are won! One man, Moses, obtains from God pardon for six hundred thousand men in arms; and Stephen, the imitator of the Lord, and the first martyr in Christ, begs forgiveness for his persecutors; and shall their power be less after having begun to be with Christ? The Apostle Paul declares that two hundred three score and sixteen souls, sailing with him, were freely given him; and, after he is dissolved and has begun to be with Christ, shall he close his lips, and not be able to utter a word in behalf of those who throughout the whole world believed at his preaching of the Gospel? And shall the living dog Vigilantius be better than that dead lion?

Which is, of course, just speculation.  We do not actually know any of this.  But that’s not an area that I want to go into just yet.

So… you are a peasant, just like me.  Who do you pray to?  Well, you find a saint whom you have reason to suppose would take an interest.  The medieval legends of St Nicholas often associate him with the sea.  For a fisherman, he’s an obvious choice, the saint with whom to have a good chat about those wretched prevailing winds this season.   He’ll understand.  He spent a lot of time dealing with bad weather at sea.

Such prayer doesn’t require ecclesiastical or official approval.  You don’t have to go to an office, fill in a form, and be given permission to pray (other than, apparently, outside abortion clinics in London in 2023).  No, just pick your saint, and let fly!  If it works, tell your friends.  (A lot of saints’ lives emphasise how effective their saint is, when it comes to delivering the goods.)

You become a patron saint, in other words, because people want you to be, and pray to you as if you are.  It’s a habit that arises from popular devotion or interest.  That’s how St George becomes patron saint of England during the crusader period, when a military saint with hobnail boots is definitely required.  The people, and especially the king, treated him as such.

Of course fashion can change.  Saints can and do fall out of favour.   The status can transfer to another.

You can become the patron saint of a church through building it, in your life, and the fact being remembered.  Although if an abbey acquires your church later, it may dedicate it to someone else!  You’re more secure as the patron saint if the church also has your relics under the floor.  But it’s all down to popular interest.

Being a patron saint seems to be basically a folk custom, which still operates, as with St Gertrude for cats.  Some loose association is taken as a reason why that saint might listen particularly to prayers on that subject, and there you have it – a patron saint.

In Cornwall the villages and churches are often named after otherwise unknown saints, such as St Austell.  In the world of Celtic saints, a “saint” could be anybody who worked for the church, or – one suspects – had a particularly crisp chasuble.  Few of them are recognised by the Catholic Church at large.  In the Cornish Life of St Samson, we read of a “saint”, an abbot of Caldey island named Pirr, who dies after falling down a well while drunk.  The standard here for Celtic sainthood is very low indeed.

There are some risks associated with all this.  In any era of superstition, there are opportunities for conmen.  The Catholic church has always tried to regulate stuff to do with “holy men”, in order to protect the people from such sharks.  The church from at least the 1600s tried to avoid local, unknown, or non-existent, or disreputable saints, for fear of scandal.

Perhaps I can add a personal note here.  There are a couple of people, now gone from this world, whom I revered greatly in Christ, and have sometimes wished that I could consult.  I have at least once found myself tempted to speak to one of them in prayer.  I have resisted, for that way lies superstition; but the impulse is clearly human.

So how does it all work?  You pray to St Bloggis, St Bloggis has a word with God, and your prayer is granted, or not.  You express thanks to St Bloggis with a donation at his church.

But what if St Bloggis never actually existed?

I have never read anything about this, but it seems to me that this isn’t really a problem for the concept of patron saints.  All prayer is really directed to God.  The dead cannot actually do anything.  Behind all the pretty legends, it is God who is certainly listening.  And God is pretty tolerant of simple mistakes made by devout hearts.  He’s not a pedant.  There’s none of the pettiness of “wrongly addressed; return to sender”.

Let us imagine that the idea of praying to individual saints is valid.  Effectively each saint, then, is running a department of heaven.  Each department deals with certain subjects.  Is it beyond the wit of heaven to have a “lost prayer office”?  To designate someone to handle stuff addressed to non-existent saints, invented by human weakness, but sincerely intended?  Is it that difficult to have a “St George office”, which handles his correspondence?  Perhaps with a minor saint filling in as head of department, pro tem?  If I were God, which we may all thank Him that I am not, it would seem like a minor thing to arrange.  If saints are really just addresses, a filing system for heaven, surely we can cope with a few errors?  If pesky humans make up a saint, the subject of prayer still needs to be handled by the bureaucracy of heaven.  But of course it is better not to do this.

So I think we can be fairly relaxed about “patron saints”.  I don’t know that they correspond to any heavenly reality; but if they do, it’s fairly obvious how it would work.  It isn’t a church thing, but a popular thing.  Which is fine.  Because patron saints are still being invented.  It matters not.


13 thoughts on “Some musings on “Patron Saints”

  1. A major benefit of patron saints is that it helps humans who feel weird with, say, praying “Oh Lord and Creator of All, help me find my glasses!”

    But we’re supposed to go to Him for all our needs.

    So! Enter an intermediary: “Tony, Tony! Come around! There’s something lost that must be found!”

    It’s God’s power, and the prayer is sincere, but there’s also recognition that even on a human level, this is pretty tiny; it is something you can be grateful for, helps you remember to thank God when things go right, *and* puts you in a much better mood even though you couldn’t find your thus and such GLASSES where ARE THEY mutter mutter mutter wrath rage discontent…..

  2. Patron saints also help build a sense of community with those members of the Church who are not currently breathing.

    Sometimes, asking for help is as much about humbling yourself to let yourself be helped, as it is about the help; being able to feel the connection with all those holy folks who have gone before me? It makes it much easier to be who and what I need to be.

  3. Thank you for getting me thinking about it!

    It’s been… quite a spring, let’s say, and the smile I got from your post has really helped.

  4. Re: triviality, Origen was one of those who saw addresses to God as requiring seriousness and worthiness, like a petition to a ruler. (Or at least that is how he felt when he wrote his treatise on the Lord’s Prayer, IIRC.)

    I personally know someone who had this feeling, and gradually stopped praying about anything. (And then had an allegedly pagan religious experience, which I view as probably diabolical or delusional, and now he is an atheist about pagan stuff too. Sheesh.) So there has to be a happy medium.

  5. Thank you for the Origen ref.

    Horrible experience there. And yes, there are always “religious experiences” to be had which come from hell, for those unwary enough. I think the only safe path is to keep coming to the Lord in prayer, whatever we have done, whatever we think. Just keep doing it.

  6. Re: folk custom – The Catholic Church is pretty relaxed about most of this. A baptized person is a member of Christ’s body, and hence a prophet (and priest and king) in a way.

    So if a bunch of the faithful feel like X is holy, they are an important bit of testimony; and if visiting X’s grave is also accompanied by healings or other good fruit, presumably God is sending a message about His favor for X.

    So popular opinion is also about discerning God’s will; and shifts in popularity of saints are basically God pointing out things that were always there. For example, devotion to St. Joseph not being new, but definitely being pointed out more to St. Teresa of Avila (who was from a Jewish Catholic converso family, and who loved her own dad a lot).

    Finally, the impulse to pray, and the way one prays, comes from the Holy Spirit. Although the entire Communion od Saints, and particularly the heavenly “cloud of witnesses” is praying for us, certain saints seem to be prompted by the Holy Spirit to pray specially for individuals still on Earth.

    And the feeling (or just the events being suspiciously obvious results) of such a friend looking over one’s shoulder, as it were, and being helpful, can sometimes be ridiculously easy to notice.

    People today don’t usually think of obscure Fathers as powerful intercessors, and yet (on some past occasions) they have seemed to like helping before I even thought of asking. They also tend to turn up on their feast days as an extra hint, even when I was previously unaware that X had a feast day anywhere. I get the feeling that some of these guys just like having students to mess with/fuss over/troll with surprises.

    OTOH, I would expect the saints to be more background, and God to be more direct, about helping someone who might be spiritually distressed by the saints’ help and attention. (The same with someone whose spirituality is just more naturally focused.) The way God works and reveals His glory is tailored to individual needs.

  7. So… If you feel like you would like to have a word with deceased relatives, friends, or mentors, the usual Catholic view is that it is probably a sign that they are already praying for you, and for whatever you are wanting them to pray for.

    But that is not the sort of thing that is a faith essential, so ignore it if it does not make sense to you. It is okay to have different ways of looking at spiritual life.

    I am the kind of person who likes to tell lots of people what is going on with me (if I have certain kinds of problems), so I suspect God just lets me ramble on, to everybody living and dead. I make a lot of use of the “private devotion is okay” guidelines.

    But of course you also have very Christ-centered devotions like the Divine Mercy chaplet, living right next door in the heads of folks who collect saint devotions like Pokemons.

    It is just like people’s email lists or a library, or the proverbial storage of new and old -full of all sorts of things.

  8. Thank you very much for these insights. This is all stuff about which I know nothing. An intelligent Catholic point of view is invaluable.

  9. Thank you for being so patient, whenever I write walls of text in your comment section!!

  10. I very much appreciate you taking the time. I only reply briefly because I am generally exhausted, but you always tell me things that I don’t know.

  11. St Paisios is the patron saint of the Signals Arm. This was decided by the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece in 2017, less than two years after he was proclaimed saint. The Holy Synod did not act out of the blue, there was an actual demand by the Hellenic Army, especially since he had served as radio operator in the Hellenic Army during the Civil War (1946-1949) and had participated in combat though had never fired a gun. A story he would tell when asked what are monks are good for, is that monks are God’s radio operators. He would recount then a tale from the Civil War when the situation for his unit was hopeless, the communists were so close they could smell their breath and they were saved because he managed to call air support through the radio

    Honestly this has been how in general I have seen the intercession of the saints. In Orthodoxy every person has a patron saint, it is the saint after whom they are named. Now it might seem weird when considering that people in Greece also have ancient names, like Leonidas or Pericles but there are saint Leonidas and St Pericles out there. Everyone has a name day in Greece when it is the celebration of your patron saint, for that matter before Facebook one was more likely to receive visits and phone calls on your name day than your birthday because everyone knows when your patron saint celebrates, ever far acquaintances but few people really know your birthday.

    Professional patron saints serve another purpose too, they are a way for a guild or union to show their collective piety. In my church at home, St Constantine and Helen in Piraeus, there are several icons that were originally offered by the unions of their patron saints in church. There are signs in front of them that say so. I remember a news item from Good Friday: in Thessaloniki there is a church of the merchants. On Good Friday they have their Epitaphios service early, something like 3-4 pm down the commercial streets of Thessaloniki and the employees and merchants from their stores go out of their shops during the precession and venerate their Epitaphios’ passage collectively/professionally. Then they go with their family in the evening in their neighborhood church and celebrate as a family.

    This is how I have always seen patron saints: God’s radio operators, but also a way for guilds and unions to show their corporate devotion.

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