Monday, June 23, 2008

A Question About Terminology... but A Story First

The Kelly clan had an Exodus from their native lands in the north to the lands of Hy Many due to the Danish incursion in the north. Upon reaching the region the locals, the Fir Bolgs, had begun to prepare an attack. A local priest working with the locals, named Grellan, whom studied under St Patrick, heard about the impending attack and worked to bring about a peace between the two sides.

The Kelly clan, which incidentally did not use Kelly as a hereditary name yet, and the Fir Bolgs exchanged hostages. Cian, of the Fir Bolgs, sent some of his people to live with the Kelly Clan and in return Main More of the Kelly clan sent one of his sons and some of his people to live among the Fir Bolgs.

Main More's son went to live with the Law Bringer of the Fir Bolgs and his wife. They fell in love... thus angering the Law Bringer who convinved Cian to kill the Kelly's living amongst them. Cian killed them and then realizing his mistake sent messengers to Main More and invited him and the rest of the clan chieftains to a party and that they should leave their weapons home.

The night of the party arrived and not knowing the ambush that lie ahead Main More and his chieftains headed to the Fir Bolgs unarmed.

The Fir Bolgs awaited in a marsh along the path.

Grellan, the priest, found out about the impending ambush and stepped in front of his church and called upon the Lord and the ground beneath the Fir Bolgs became a quagmire and they were sucked into the ground.

From this point on Grellan became the Patron Saint of Clan Kelly.

What exactly is a Patron Saint? What does that mean?


Anonymous said...

From the summary at the online Catholic Encyclopedia (an incredible resource)...

A patron is one who has been assigned by a venerable tradition, or chosen by election, as a special intercessor with God and the proper advocate of a particular locality, and is honoured by clergy and people with a special form of religious observance.

Here's the full article on Patron Saints if you are interested.

Also, a more condensed explanation here.

Ben said...

I heard Fir Bolgs and though world of warcraft. Now I realize I'm an idiot. And the post above me looks good to me.

Flexo said...

The concept of a patron saint itself is not so much a matter of the Faith, so much as it is a matter of tradition (that's small "t", not capital "T" tradition), although the concepts of saints, communion of saints, and intercession of saints are all matters of the Faith. The patronage of a given saint is merely appealing to that particular saint for certain persons or causes.

Right -- what does that mean? Well, although I assume that you already know what a "saint" is, let us nevertheless go back to our prior discussion on eternal life. Let us take the example of a person who has died in the worldly sense, but because we are not merely physical bodies, but spiritual beings as well, he now enjoys that eternal life. We might call such a person a "saint" and such eternal life "heaven." (So Grellan would not properly be considered a saint immediately after saving the people, but only after his death. Some would say that the faithful here on earth are saints also, but since there is always the chance that our faithfulness today will be tossed aside tomorrow, we'll not use the term in that sense.) Of course, there are some people who choose eternal death instead, that is, who choose to separate themselves from Love and Truth, which are the true life, but that is for a later discussion. A "canonized saint" would be a person that the Church has investigated and determined (which faith tells us is with the guidance of the Holy Spirit) to be one who is now in heaven, so as to be included in the canon, or list, of the saints. The Church does not make a saint, it only recognizes one as being a saint, and even so, it recognizes that there are many other saints in heaven that are unknown.

Because we have this spiritual component to our being, that spirit has the capacity to transcend space (the physical universe) and time, and thereby join in a sense with, not only the Ultimate Being (God), but other spiritual beings, which we would call "communion" (from the Latin "com" (with) and union (union)), including being in communion with the saints.

And just as people still here on earth may join together in prayer (intercede) for a given person or cause, such as one who is sick or recently deceased, so too can the living saints in heaven join in such prayer. Thus, the intercession of a saint or saints merely involves asking that particular saint to pray to God on behalf of that person, cause, etc.

So where do PATRON saints fit in all of this? Well, a patron saint would simply be (a) a saint that a person has "adopted" in a sense as being his or her "patron" or special advocate, such as at Baptism or Confirmation, when he or she might take that saint's name as well, or (b) a saint that has been more or less designated by culture or tradition to a given cause, often depending upon what that saint did in his or her earthly life, such as taking care of the sick or watching over children, etc.

So, Grellen, Patron Saint of Clan Kelly would be a saint to whom the clan has designated and decided to turn to as its special protector, and advocate before God. Petitions might be made to Grellen to intercede on behalf of the clan and ask God for certain graces (help), such as keeping them safe from war or famine.

Communion of the saints and intercession of the saints are matters of the Faith, but the designation of a particular saint as a patron of this or that is not a matter of faith, only tradition. One problem that might creep into this whole practice, however, is that some folks, lacking a proper grounding in the faith, might wrongly stray into superstition and the like, e.g. keeping a figure or picture of a patron saint as a kind of "good luck" charm. That is to be avoided. But spiritually adopting a given saint to assist you and intercede for you, such as asking St. Augustine to watch over you and pray on your behalf that you be granted the graces of insight and understanding of truth, whatever that truth may be, would be a good thing.

Scott J said...

In addition to the above, I would like to mention that the possibility of having a patron Saint--that it should not be seen as something strange or odd--is rooted in the Christian understanding of what happens to us when we die.

Upon death, Christianity has long believed that the soul lives on. And, it is the same person that lives on--continuous as the same individual whose body has died. Catholicism teaches (and not all Christians are clear about this) further, that the soul after death is not asleep, unconscious, or in some sort of stasis--but is alive in the sense of being consciously aware and present to itself, and aware of its personal identity as the same person who died. And indeed, this state of the individual soul living apart from the body after bodily death is only temporary, for at the resurrection of the dead, when Christ establishes a new creation, all the deceased will rise again with their bodies restored and transformed. And once again, the body-soul union will attain to the nature of the complete human being.

But even before the general resurrection of the dead, the souls of individual persons will experience judgment. Those who will be eternally condemned will be sent to hell. Those who will live in eternity with the Holy Trinity will be sent either to purgatory first (for final purifying), or, a very few very holy souls may go right to heaven without going through the purifying antechamber first. This happens upon death, before the soul is reunited with its body. Whatever state the soul is already in is the state in which the body will be reunited to it at the resurrection.

So, the souls in heaven now awaiting the restoration and glorification of their bodies are not there in a state of dormancy or sleep, but are in heaven in a consciously alive way (though they can't be "conscious" in exactly the same way we are now with our bodies and souls together as they are meant to be).

Why do I mention all this? Because, to embrace the idea of having a special "patron" in heaven (a patron Saint) as many Catholics do, is first dependent on understanding the ancient Christian doctrine of the soul surviving death, and that the soul undergoes judgment and experiences life in heaven or hell in some way awake and aware of all this happening.

There are Christians (non-Catholics) who believe that upon bodily death the soul enters some sort of sleep or dormancy, and remains so until the resurrection. This, among other things, if true would make having a patron Saint rather nonsensical.

But, many Christians do not have a problem with embracing the patron Saint idea because we believe that the Saints in heaven (those blessed souls whom we know with assurance through the authority of the Church to speak in the name of Christ are definitely in heaven with God) are indeed in heaven now in an alive, awakened manner, even though yet deprived of their bodies.

This matters because, through the power of God (not through their own power) the blessed in heaven are capable (again--because God makes it possible) of "hearing" prayers that we address to them from here on earth. And when we address prayers to them, we don't pray "to" them in the sense of thinking they are divine and have the power to answer them. But, we pray "to" them in the sense of asking a special friend to in turn pray on our behalf. Because--they certainly can pray. Even now. Every Saint whom we know by the authority of the Church is certainly in heaven, can pray for others.

For some this may seem strange at first. But, to me, it is no different than asking a friend here still living on earth to pray for us. Why not only pray to Jesus? Well, we can. Nothing stopping us from this at all. But, it is a human good to be spiritually bound to each other such that we care enough and know enough about one another to pray for one another. This makes us more of a family--brothers and sisters in Christ. It's part of being built into a family of God, and not just being individual islands who relate to God devoid of a broader family context of brothers and sisters who also love God (and who love and care about us).

So, just as it is not strange (indeed, it is a very good thing!) that fellow brothers and sisters in Christ pray for one another while still of this earthly life (because we care for each other and are eager to help one another), so, too, there is nothing strange about asking a brother or sister in Christ who has already passed on to their eternal reward, to also pray for us. For indeed, they can. And, they love us as their brothers and sisters in Christ, even as the radiance of the glory of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, immerses their hearts in the infinite ocean of divine love. Indeed, because of this, they love us more than any person could while still on this earth. So, why not ask them to pray for us, and enable them to continue to exercise their love for us even as they are now in heaven?

Doing this takes nothing at all away from the glory of Christ, because it is only because of Christ that this is possible at all. Jesus, glorified in heaven, is pleased to have those who are with Him exercise their love for us here below by praying on our behalf.

A patron Saint can be a Saint that somehow was designated to you (e.g. your namesake or a confirmation name chosen for you), or, can be someone that you simply choose yourself to pray to as a special heavenly friend.

We can have more than one heavenly patron. There are no rules about such specifics. (Can we have only one brother or sister?). When you choose a patron Saint yourself it is usually because you have learned about this Saint's life, and have found them inspiring and an example you want to follow to help you become closer to Christ. And, perhaps, there may be something that makes you especially identify with a particular Saint and which therefore makes you feel a certain closeness to him or her.

I have a number of favorite Saints. One of my special patrons is St. Francis de Sales (lived late 16th-early 17th centuries). He was a priest and bishop. I am drawn to him especially (among other reasons) because he was extraordinarily effective at bringing people who had left the Catholic faith back into the fold. And he also made many converts from Calvinist Protestantism to the Catholic faith. He did so with great love, patience, and individual attention. He was loved by a great many who knew him as the gentle Saint. He was also a great preacher and was sought after by kings and peasants alike for spiritual advice.

And so, sometimes I pray to St. Francis de Sales, asking him to pray for me, all the while praising Jesus Christ for giving to us mere human beings the grace such that it would be possible that there could be a Saint Francis, and that I might be able to consider him my big brother in Christ, even though separated by many years, and I still alive on earth, he alive in heaven.

It makes the family aspect of being alive in Christ very, wonderfully real! Why only think about those now on earth when we think of our brothers and sisters in Christ? Those beautiful souls alive and radiant in heaven are real too! And they live and love and praise as we do--but without the stain of sin weighing them down. They fly to Christ as we cannot until we are by their side in the family of heaven.

Tim said...

I find the notion of Patron Saints undersupported by the evidence. The concept is logically coherent; I just don't see any reason to believe that there are any; little 't' tradition doesn't do much for me.

But then, that's about what you would expect from a card-carrying Protestant (sugar-free variety).

Gregory Kong said...

Referred here from Dawn's blog, btw.

Anglican (evangelical), Malaysian Chinese, male, late 20s, rabidly conservative by American standards, just to give you an idea of where I come from.

Note that as a pseudo-Protestant, the term 'saint' (lowercase) refers to every Christian living, dead or otherwise. Paul greets his fellow 'saints' all the time in the New Testament.

The term Saint, on the other hand, is more or less a Catholic import. I believe we recognise all of the Apostles as Saints, and out of courtesy whoever the Catholics refer to as Saints, well, so do we. This one I'm not so sure of.

A Patron Saint, well, is pretty much (for Anglicans, that is) a mascot. Scott J ably explains the full concept of a P.S. in Catholic terms; for Anglicans it's much the same except watered down. Way, way down. We don't ask the Saint to intercede for us, we don't recognise that they are any 'closer' to Father/Son/Holy Spirit than we are, we don't build shrines and rarely dedicate churches to them anymore.

Tim said...


Is it possible that we were separated at birth ...?

Gregory Kong said...

Heh. :) Well, my parents used to tell me they picked me up from the rubbish bin, so maybe... then again, they also used to tell me I was an accident, so...

I *am* trying to slim down, really. It's just that gluttony gets in the way. Whoever came up with that list of deadly sins pretty much covered it well.

CAPTCHA: qmpee. Hmm.

Flexo said...

I find the notion of Patron Saints undersupported by the evidence

Tim -- I'm not sure if it is the "patron" part you are not convinced of, or the "saint" part. In any event, Tim and Gregory, perhaps this example will explain it a little better --

Suppose that you were to die tomorrow and go to heaven. What would you do while you were there? Spend all of your "time" adoring God and enjoying His presence? That is what many/most people would think heaven is like.

But what of your loved ones still here on earth? While being in the glory of God's presence, would you essentially turn your back on your loved ones? Would you take the attitude that it was up to God to deal with them, and think no more of them yourself? Or would you remember them, and say to God, "Lord, take care of my family back on earth"? Would your love for your "loved ones" end up your death and entry into heaven, or would it continue after, such that, if they were to speak to you in heaven, that you would listen and forward their concerns to God?

I cannot easily believe that you would merely sit there in heaven, enjoying the Love that is God, and not participate in that love by continuing to ask God (i.e. pray to Him, i.e. intercede) to provide favors (i.e. grace) to your loved ones still here on earth. And I would not be surprised if, every now and then, the you-still-here on earth were to "speak" to some deceased member of family, such as a parent or sibling or spouse. And I would be greatly surprised if you never have offered up a prayer on behalf of some other person, living or recently deceased.

So it is with the saints in heaven, as Revelation (scripture) and reason demonstrate. And so it is with "patron" saints, who are merely saints that, as a matter of custom, we designate to pray for us on particular matters. And since we are all children of God, making us one family in Christ, those saints in heaven unrelated to us are part of our family as well.

Matt G said...

Setting aside the debate about who are actually Saints, and whether patron saints are actually Tradition or tradition, the concept of patron saints is simply an extension of our human experience.

What is a patron on earth? It's someone who supports your cause.

Damien, you probably have a friend or an acquaintance who's a "go-to guy" for cars or finances or something. Whatever it is, it excites them. They're interested in it and they find fulfillment in sharing their knowledge with you if you have a questions about it.

Patron Saints are just like that. They're people whom the Church has declared are in Heaven, who had a particular love of something during their lives. One of the most well-known examples of a patron saint is St. Francis, who loved Creation so much that he would preach the Gospel to anything that would listen, including his famous sermon to the birds. Thus he became the patron saint of animals.

When we die, we don't just get absorbed into heaven and become one of the teeming throng, indistinguishable from anyone else. We become more completely ourselves than ever. So it makes sense that our interests on earth would carry into the next life.

Gregory Kong said...

matt and flexo: My dear brothers in Christ;

Please understand... I do not want to argue with you; you will not change my opinion on this matter, nor do I particularly want to change yours.

St. Augustine of Hippo himself says, "In essentials, unity; in other things, diversity; in all things, charity" Which I believe should be the way we Christians relate to each other, denomination or no.

Our blog host wanted to know what Patron Saints were; I simply provided the Anglican perspective. It would be interesting to hear what our Orthodox brethren have to say.

But... it must be pointed out (again) that this is a people-led initiative. I do not recall any Saint declaring himself/herself as the patron saint of anything or anywhere.

I do not know what happens when we die. My personal belief is that we are taken out of this universe's space/time continuum; that 'Heaven' is a different spiritual dimension that is not part of the universe, and hence it is meaningless. I am also cognizant of the fact that Jesus in one of His parables speaks of the rich man, Lazarus and Abraham as if it were possible to interact with the living still.

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam. That is what matters at the end of the day.

Flexo said...

Gregory -- may God be with you.

I do not mean to argue, only to explain so that others might have a greater understanding. Engaging in dialogue, even across the religious spectrum, is useful in obtaining that understanding, and such dialogue need not degrade into us-against-them arguments. It is not a matter of changing "opinion" -- you and they are perfectly free to agree or not -- but a matter of continuing down the road on this search for truth.

Matt G said...

@ gregory kong:

I also do not wish to argue, and my comments were in no way intended to change your views. To clarify, if the Church "declares" someone a Patron Saint, it is simply saying that the person exhibited in their lives a personal interest in whatever topic. You are absolutely right that it is a people-led initiative. In fact, the process of canonizing any Saint is people-led, as they are the ones who must bring such a cause to the Church in the first place.