Christian texts (such as the epistles of Paul) use the term "saint"
(Greek, hagios) to refer to the members of the Christian
community, including those who have died (for example, Ephesians
Gradually the term came to refer more particularly to persons
martyred for the faith. By the fourth century, exemplary persons
believed to have performed miracles were added to the list. Saints
by canon law must be venerated as having entered Heaven and possessing
the ability to "intercede" between the believer and God. They
are, that is to say, not regarded as having the capacity to answer
prayer themselves but to facilitate the process.
The whole concept is rejected by most Protestants but is central
to the history of Roman Catholicism. Indeed, as the historian
Peter Brown writes, the cult of the saints became the dominant
form of religion in Europe after the fall of Rome (The Cult of
the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity [University
of Chicago Press, 1982], p. 3). For centuries it was closely related
to the cult of saints' relics, collected by almost every church.
Catholic Church, acting as its adherents see it under the inspiration
of the Holy Spirit, has a procedure to select certain dead people
for recognition as saints. The first step is beatification, which
pronounces the individual "blessed" but doesn't oblige believers
to venerate him or her. It merely allows the believer to pray
in the beatified's name.
The skeptic might suspect that politics have as much to do with
beatification as divine inspiration; the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne
(surely no "saint" in the colloquial sense) was beatified soon
after his death in 814. The Pope, as Christ's Vicar on earth,
has the final say. The late Pope John Paul II, who will surely
himself be beatified eventually, beatified 1,338 - the largest
number of any pope in history.
think that this concept of beatification and sainthood, and the
notion of praying to various persons in Heaven, was no part of
the earliest Christianity but quite likely a meme derived from
Buddhism. In Mahayana Buddhism (to which some Christians in Syria
and Egypt were exposed by the second century if not earlier),
we find the concept of the boddhisattva - the enlightened being
who, after death, remains in the cosmos out of a spirit of compassion
and is available to answer prayer.
there was brutality on all sides, Spain's Nationalist dead
were treated with respect following Franco's victory and
during his long dictatorship to his death in 1975. (He enjoyed
massive U.S. support during the Cold War, and continuing
warm, grateful support from the Catholic Church.)
boddhisattvas have specific qualities or functions: for example,
Avalokitesvara is associated with compassion, Manjushiri with
wisdom, Vasudhara with wealth and fertility. St. Christopher (downgraded
in 1969 by the Vatican due to questions about his historical existence)
was long the patron saint of travelers. His Buddhist counterpart
is Ksitigarbha, the bodhisattva who helps travelers.
In the 190s,
in Alexandria, Egypt, church leader Clement (later made St. Clement)
in his Stromatae made the first known Christian references to
Buddhism. He mentioned Buddha by that title. He also described
Buddhist monks (in an era before there were any Christian monks,
although he compared them with the heterodox Christian ascetics
of Syria, the Encratites), and the Buddhist practice of reverencing
the bones of virtuous persons under pyramids (by which he means
stupas). (See John Ferguson, trans., Clement of Alexandria: Stromateis,
Books One to Three [Catholic University of America Press, 1991],
There were almost surely Indian Buddhists in Alexandria and in
Antioch, the terminus of the Silk Road. Ideas like the reverence
of saints often pass from one religious tradition into another
quite different one. I think monasticism itself, along with the
cult of relics, the use of prayer-beads, and the cult of saints
- none of which are mentioned in the New Testament or are likely
derived from Roman pagan practice - are Buddhist memes.
I personally think the cult of saints and this whole beatification
thing is a human invention to be logically and historically explained
from the standpoint of comparative religious studies. It's very
interesting, and perhaps harmless or even psychologically helpful
for the believer; a Buddhist monk is likely to tell you, "If it
alleviates suffering, what is the harm?" Nevertheless maybe sometimes
the selection process can do harm. If you chose the wrong person
to beatify, you may open old wounds.
City on October 28, in the largest beatification ceremony ever
held, Pope Benedict XVI placed 498 persons on the road to sainthood.
They all died during the Spanish Civil War (1936-9), and were
presented as martyrs to their faith. This was just days before
the Spanish Parliament was scheduled to debate the "Law of Historical
Memory" requiring local governments in Spain to fund efforts to
unearth mass graves of victims of that war containing thousands
killed at the hands of the fascist dictator Francisco Franco.
Is the timing not curious?
Half a million
people died in the war. On the one hand there were the partisans
of a Republican government under a leftist Popular Front coalition
that won parliamentary elections. They were leftist and anticlerical,
hostile to the great wealth and power of the Catholic Church.
(The Church, consisting of about 115,000 priests, monks and nuns
in a country of 24 million, controlled over 15 per cent of all
arable land, and had large holdings in bank capital and other
are tens of thousands of victims of the fascists whose remains
have not yet been located, and some prominent clerics in
Spain seem content with that. The Spanish state wants to
dig up the victims of fascism. The Church wants to leave
them buried, while launching its own remembered martyrs
into the stratosphere for veneration.
On the other
were the Nationalists under Gen. Franco, "hero" of Spain's colonial
war in Morocco and devout son of the Church. The Republicans were
supported by the Soviets, the Nationalists by Hitler's Germany
and Mussolini's Italy - and the Church.
of Franco's fascists and foreign allies is immortalized in Picasso's
painting "Guernica," depicting the German Luftwaffe bombing of
a Basque town in 1937. While there was brutality on all sides,
the Nationalist dead were treated with respect following Franco's
victory and during his long dictatorship to his death in 1975.
(He enjoyed massive U.S. support during the Cold War, and continuing
warm, grateful support from the Catholic Church.)
There are tens of thousands of victims of the fascists whose remains
have not yet been located, and some prominent clerics in Spain
seem content with that. AP quotes Francisco Perez, the archbishop
of Pamplona, as opposing the bill before the Spanish parliament.
"You can't change history," he says, urging victims "to look for
ways to forget."
In a Spanish
language sermon in St. Peter's Square Sunday, Benedict declared
that the beatified ones were "motivated exclusively by their love
for Christ." "These martyrs," added the Vatican Secretary of State,
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (the No. 2 man at the Vatican, according
to Reuters) "have not been proposed for veneration by the people
of God because of their political implications nor to fight against
anybody" but because they had been exemplary Christians.
meanwhile, has been an outspoken critic of the growing secularization
of Spanish society. Church attendance has fallen dramatically
since 1975 and, according to a 2002 survey, only 19 per cent of
Spaniards consider themselves practicing Catholics. Spain has
under current President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero adopted a
liberal divorce law and legalized gay marriage. An indignant Pope
Benedict in 2005 urged Spaniards to firmly resist "secular tendencies,"
and perhaps he associates these with the present attention given
to "historical memory."
state wants to dig up the victims of fascism. The Church wants
to leave them buried, while launching its own remembered martyrs
into the stratosphere for veneration. Whom do these include? Augustinian
Fr. Gabino Olaso Zabala, executed by Republican forces. In 1896
he participated in the torture of a priest in the Philippines,
a Filipino Fr. Mariano Dacanay, who was suspected of sympathy
for anti-Spanish revolutionaries. He encouraged prison guards
to kick the priest in the head.
But as of
Sunday, Catholics so inclined are authorized to seek his intercession
between themselves and God.
implications here, says the Vatican Secretary of State, although
many Spaniards seem to disagree. I wonder what they're saying
in the Philippines.
Bonus Hostage Crisis, by Gary Leupp
Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct
Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants,
Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male
Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan;and
Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women,
1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch's merciless
chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial
here to order books by Gary Leupp.
can be reached at: [email protected].