Question: What does it mean to be a saint? Who gets to be a saint? Who decides who the saints are? Why do we Catholics pray to the saints?
Answer: One of the Devil's most important propaganda victories has been his clouding of the meaning of the word "saint" in peoples' minds. In the modern stereotype, a saint is a halo crowned figure in a long brown robe, who glides noiselessly a few inches above the floor, whose path is illuminated by a soft glow emanating from his body. His hands are always folded, his voice is never raised, his body never sweats. Even Catholics, who should know better, often use this word "saint" as though it applies only to a tiny number of souls of extraordinary holiness.
The truth of the matter is that all of us are called to be saints. Some will be more holy, some more heroic, just as all personalities vary somewhat -- but each one of us has been created to enjoy the happiness of union with God in heaven. That is what it means to be a saint -- to be one of those who cooperated with God's graces here on earth, and so merited to be taken up to God's bosom in heaven. And, this includes some very ordinary people; men and women, old and young, married and single, clergy and laity, butchers, bakers, tinkers, and so on. Very few of these will glow in the dark, or walk without the expense of shoe leather. Most will be people who have simply done their duty in life, thereby glorifying God in His creation.
None of this should be construed to mean that the saints are not all heroic people. There is, perhaps, no greater heroism than a life of being an ordinary person doing his duty. By and large, these people will have disdained the acclaim both of fame and infamy. They will have walked a via media between narcissism and self neglect, between affected piety and practiced irreverence, between studied poverty and ostentatious wealth. In short, they will have dared to confront and affront the "wisdom" of the day, being more concerned with "unpopular" concerns like Family and Country, Church and Salvation. If they have experienced neither the red martyrdom of the blood or the white martyrdom of the contemplative soul, perhaps they may be said to have endured the khaki or olive drab martyrdom of duty to normal life.
At least in modern times (more than likely, in all times), there is a heroism in doing or paying a fair wage for a fair days work, in marital chastity, in keeping one's word, in putting up with the difficult, in helping the sick, in raising children rather than luxury automobiles, in teaching those more ignorant than ourselves, and in any or all of a million and a half things which are noble and just -- and which are held in contempt and scorn by the world and its overseers.
The vast majority, then, of those who are or will be saints, are not, from a worldly perspective, noteworthy people. While they may be heroic, they are not "heroes;" not people who will be well known and acclaimed by their fellow citizens. That is why the Church has us offer Mass and the Divine Office in honor of all the saints on the first day of November. Perhaps only a few thousand will ever be officially canonized; declared citizens of heaven through the authority of the Roman Pontiff as head of the Catholic Church. In her wisdom, the Church knows that many more will conform their wills to the Will of God and earn the beatitude of heaven in utter obscurity. In short, most saints will be as we are -- and we have scant excuse not to be saints.
There are, of course, a few saints who have managed to be in the right (or perhaps, wrong) place at the right time, so as to become known as saints by tradition, acclamation, or canonization. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Joseph, Mary, Peter.... Even the sects which have no saints will often slip, and apply the prefix "St." to these figures of scripture and tradition. Such venerable old characters as Augustine, Jerome, and Benedict move in this same circle, by reason of their antiquity. Before the uniform application of Canon Law, others were held to be saints by virtue of general acclamation; an almost universal acceptance by the faithful that a particular figure had behaved in ways clearly pointing to his destiny of union with God. No golden halo is required; the faithful are satisfied with genuine holiness.
In modern times, since the reign of John XV in 933, the Church has given us a more official and unequivocal means of knowing those who are the saints of heaven. If the process is more "legalistic," it gives, at least, a greater measure of certainty. Those being considered for canonization are referred to as "venerable"; or worthy of veneration, but this is just the beginning of the formal process. The process truly begins with "beatification;" the holy soul under scrutiny is declared "beatus," or "blessed," by the Holy Father, only after his holiness has been well established and several well documented miracles have been worked through his intercession. Canonization may, or may not, ensue, and may take several hundreds of years. If it does, several more well attested miracles must take place, together with the approval of the Vatican Curia. Canonization, when it takes place, involves great pageantry in the Basilica of St. Peter, the public display of the saint's picture and relics, the offering of Holy Mass in his honor, and an irreformable decree that the new saint is, indeed, a citizen of heaven, and worthy of universal veneration.
Given all of the formal processes which must take place for canonization, it is not surprising that only a few of the citizens of heaven have been officially canonized. The time and money is well spent if it will encourage others to follow the saint's heroic example, but only a few orders and societies can afford it. The vast majority of saints go without official recognition by the Church.
We admire George Washington for having the virtue to admit that he chopped down his father's cherry tree. Should it be odd to anyone that such a people should honor the saints for their virtues and steadfastness in glorifying God? We Catholics, of course, do not worship the saints -- but we do, indeed, honor them for being the holy souls which we, ourselves, would like to be. And, hopefully, we imitate them, modeling our own lives after theirs.
It remains that we are all called to holiness -- to heroically observe our state in life -- and, ultimately, to dwell forever in heaven with God our Father. May He give us the graces needed -- and may we respond to the with generosity.
Blessed be God in His Angels and in His Saints !!