Question: "What are patron saints?"

Answer: In Catholic thinking, a saint is a deceased individual who, having achieved sanctification and a notable degree of holiness, is officially declared an intercessor to whom the living can pray. A patron saint is a saint who is looked to for protection and intercession by a person, a guild, or a place. For example, the patron saint of Madagascar is St. Vincent de Paul, and the patron saint of pastry makers is St. Honoratus of Amiens.

The Catholic teaching on sainthood conflicts with the Bible’s definition of saint. According to the Bible, a saint is anyone who has come to faith in Christ and is thereby made righteous. Although Christians should live “saintly” lives, even saints can fail to do so at times. Paul refers to the Corinthian believers as “saints” in 1 Corinthians 1:2 (NASB and ESV). As you read 1 Corinthians, you will find that the people were not acting very “saintly,” and Paul has to chastise them. They were not living up to their position as saints in Christ, but they were saints nonetheless. There is no such thing as a “patron saint” to whom one prays in the Bible.

In Roman Catholic theology, no one can be absolutely sure of his eternal destiny, for even the best of men may commit a mortal sin and die outside of grace. To speak of assurance of salvation is considered the sin of presumption. However, there are some people who have lived such exemplary lives that the Church is confident of their eternal destiny and so “canonizes” them—officially recognizes them as saints. According to Catholic doctrine, these saints not only have enough righteousness for themselves, but they have excess righteousness that can be used to make up some of the deficiencies of their fellow human beings.

In Roman Catholic practice, one can pray to or request help from a saint. Since the petitioner might not be righteous enough to get direct help from God the Father or from Christ, he or she can pray to a saint who will then take the request to the Father or the Son. This is why praying to Mary is seen as so efficacious—who has more influence over a son than his mother? The idea is that, if Mary takes up your cause and takes your request to her Son, you can be sure of a favorable response. Official Catholic teaching would say that Catholics are not praying to saints but asking the saints to pray with them; in practice, however, the average Roman Catholic prays directly to the saints.

Mary is by far the most important saint, but there are a great many other saints who have specialized areas of interest or expertise, and these are known as “patron saints.” Patron saints for an individual are usually determined by the saint a person is named after or the day of a person’s birth. (Each day of the year is dedicated to a saint: February 14 is St. Valentine’s Day, March 17 is St. Patrick’s Day, etc.) If a person is named after a saint or born on a particular saint’s day, then it is assumed that saint will take a particular interest in the needs of that person.

Patron saints are also determined by interests, hobbies, activities, and professions. Some of the patron saints are obvious choices. For instance, St. Peter is the patron saint of fishermen, St. Luke is the patron saint of physicians, and St. Joseph is the patron saint of carpenters. St. Jude is the patron saint of hospitals and of lost causes. St. Christopher is the patron saint of travelers, thus small figures of St. Christopher are often displayed on car dashboards. St. Teresa of Calcutta (aka Mother Teresa) is the patron saint of missionaries. St. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals, and his statue is often placed in gardens and nature settings.

Patron saints are seen as providing protection and answering prayers. St. Anne is the patron saint of sailors, and, of course, sailors need protection from storms. When Martin Luther (who was named Martin because he was born on St. Martin’s Day) was almost killed in a storm, he cried out in fear, “Help me, St. Anne, and I will become a monk!” He lived and, true to his promise, became a monk.

Unfortunately, the idea of patron saints has its roots in paganism. Honoring saints who oversee certain geographical regions or asking them to protect those in certain trades sounds remarkably like the concept of patron deities in the Roman Empire. In ancient religions, each deity had a particular realm of operation. Each trade guild and profession had a patron deity. If you had a problem or a request in a particular area, or if it concerned your livelihood, your prayers and sacrifices would be directed to that deity. Luke records that Paul and his companions were taken aboard a ship “with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux” (Acts 28:11)—those two gods being the patron deities of the owners of the ship. The concept of localized, “designer deities” goes back further than Rome, however: the “Baal of Peor” in Numbers 25:3 is an example of a patron god worshiped by the Moabites.

The New Testament discounts the idea of patron saints, clearly teaching that all believers are saints and that we have no righteousness of our own. Our only righteousness is the imputed righteousness of Christ. “We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. . . . For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:10, 14; see also 2 Corinthians 5:21). No believer (who is a saint by definition) needs another saint to get God’s attention; rather, he can go to God directly. “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:14–16).