A while ago I posted on Facebook: ‘Today is the feast of St Denys, patron saint of France. If you haven’t already had a croissant or pain au chocolat for breakfast, why not have a baguette for lunch?’
Among the responses, one friend asked, ‘How old is the idea of a patron saint? Is it in the Bible?’ – which is a great question, deserving of a fuller answer than I could give in a comment thread.
No, patron saints aren’t explicitly referred to in the Bible, though the idea is grounded in a long history of reflection on passages such as those that describe the Church on earth being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses encouraging us on (Hebrews 12); the martyrs interceding on behalf of the Church on earth (Revelation 6); and believers on earth being simultaneously seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2).
But first, we must take a step back, to consider saints (in general) and martyrs. While ‘saints’ – or, ‘made-holy ones’ – is used in Scripture to describe all believers, over time the idea of saints (sometimes capital-S ‘Saints’) came to be used to describe those whose life of faithfulness to the Lord and to his ‘body’ and ‘bride’ the Church, in the face of the particular challenges of their day, was an example to all of the out-working of holiness - what it looks like to make visible a spiritual reality. Saints are not super-Christians, but flawed-and-loved ordinary believers who might be a step ahead on the journey; those we might look to and be encouraged. They are members of our family tree, who have a particularly interesting story to be heard.
Martyrs are those who were put to death for confessing their faith. Some saints are also martyrs, while other saints died peaceably, or through illness. Not all martyrs are Saints – this because a key criterion for Saint-hood became the association with performing miracles. Saints performing miracles is a reminder to the Church that while not all perform miracles, miracles themselves are an ongoing expression of – and signpost to - the kingdom of heaven, extended on earth.
Patron saints, then, are those saints who have a particular association with:
a city, or nation - perhaps because they lived there, though perhaps by later adoption;
persons defined by a common experience, such as profession or malady – perhaps because the Saint shared that experience, or ministered to someone whose experience it was;
local churches or related communities (such as universities or hospitals, both of which have their roots in monastic traditions) – who often adopt the patron to identify with their story in some way.
What, then, might patron saints do or be for?
In Christ, patron saints are present to us. Not as restless ghosts, but as those whose lives, like ours, are hid in Christ. Christ is present, by his Spirit, and so those in Christ are present to one another. My working days begin with prayer in a chapel dedicated to Bede, in a minster dedicated to Benedict Biscop (patron saint of Sunderland). Often there are other members of the staff team or congregation present; but even if not, I am never alone. The stained glass window in front of me, with the city framed by Benedict Biscop and by Bede, reminds me that, in Christ, our prayer on earth is joined with theirs in heaven. Indeed, the faithful departed (whether Saints or saints) who surround us are arguably more faithful members of the community of prayer than those we see. And their presence connects us to both our past and our future.
Patron saints both ground and inspire our faith. Some Christians speak and act as if nothing had happened - or at least, nothing good - between the end of the book of Acts and today when, thank God, we have turned up to make things right. The stories of patron saints remind us that this is a fiction. They keep us from ignorance and arrogance, and also from the equally damaging fiction that our lives cannot make a difference in our day. They both ground and inspire us, and we can learn patterns of faithful living from their faithfulness - and their unfaithfulness too.
Patron saints intercede for us. Again, some Christians seem to believe that there is an impenetrable firewall between earth and heaven. Those who have gone before us are no longer concerned with earthly matters, being lost in wonder in the presence of God. But this would only be so if the God in whose presence they stand was utterly egotistic and uninterested in the world. Being in God’s presence is to share his heart fully. There are people who have prayed for me every day of my life, and I have no reason to believe that death will end that care. In addition, when we understand that God will not destroy the present earth but renew it, that places dear to us will carry on into eternity, death is no reason to stop caring for place, or workplace, as well as people. And we can ask them to pray for us. While some Christians claim we don't need mediators, because we can speak directly to Jesus, this is no different than asking another living person to pray for us. Yes, I can pray myself: but sometimes I am too overwhelmed to pray; and sometimes I am too closely invested in a situation to trust myself to pray impartially ‘Your will, not mine, be done’.
Christ has joined our lives together with those of the saints who have gone before us. May we live out such a life in our day, and then strengthen those who come after us with our support.