Feast days commemorating the sacrifices of the saints began in the third century and recognized only martyrs such as St. Polycarp who had died for their faith.
Since before the time of Pope Paul II, who declared the most saints, Catholics honor many kinds of saints, including individuals from around the globe who have quietly toiled in their countries and throughout the world. They come in all races and nationalities and have distinctive characteristics, says Msgr. Stephen Doktorczyk.
Some saints, like St. Teresa of Avila, were dedicated to contemplative prayer. Mother Teresa and saints like her assisted the poor and hungry, while others founded religious communities, like St. Mother Theodore Guerin and her St. Mary-of-the-Woods community in Indiana.
“By 314 A.D. popular acclaim created local feast days in some communities where the diocesan bishops had more authority,” Msgr. Doktorczyk explains. “In 393, Martin le Tours, a confessor, was the first recognized saint who didn’t die a martyr’s death.”
Msgr. Doktorczyk is judicial vicar for the Diocese of Orange in the Tribunal and Office of Canonical Services, where he oversees matters related to canon law in subjects from the sacraments to temporal goods and penal law. To prepare for his career, he spent years studying in Rome, where the Italians recognize feast days with parties and celebrations.
“In Italy it’s a pretty big celebration on your name day,” he says. “On St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, someone brought in a cake for my name day. People called and invited me to dinner, saying ‘we have to go out on your saint’s day.’”
Most feast days are celebrated upon the saint’s day of death, because their last day on Earth is recognized as their first day in Heaven, he notes. Based on the Gospel, the only saints whose birthdays are celebrated as their feast days are Jesus, Mary and St. John the Baptist.
“Becoming a saint involves having a case presented to the Congregation for the Cause of the Saints, the office in Rome where the Holy See processes the request and begins by investigating at a local level,” Msgr. Doktorczyk says. “They determine if there should be any reason the diocese or order would want to do this, whether the potential saint has a cult, or a following, and the miracles they may have performed.
“One example of this is Bishop Fulton Sheen, who died in 1979. People continued to be devoted to him, writing letters to officials about miracles and the good work he did on Earth as bishop,” he continues. “The same is true for Padre Pio, as people saw him to be a saint.”
Still, not all saints have their own feast days. Untold numbers aren’t officially designated as saints by the Church, Msgr. Doktorczyk says.
“November 1, All Saints Day, is our answer to recognize all the saints, canonized or not,” he says. “How many pious ladies who worked in sacristies and supported their husbands and prayed on their knees for their children and never complained are in Heaven? We can’t count them all.”
Here in the United States we most commonly commemorate saints’ feast days in the Liturgy at daily Mass. In addition, we pray to a saint asking for their intercession to God for mercy for our sins, or to request some thing or event, or to make us patient and kind.
“The acts of adoration, contrition, thanks and supplication aren’t always part of our prayers,” notes Msgr. Doktorczyk. “The benefits of feast days to Catholics is to encourage us to see the saints as models for how we might live.
“Recently I celebrated Mass on the feast day of St. Margaret of Scotland. I thought about her as the perfect example of a woman who supported her husband the king, raised their children, cared for the poor and was influential in government in a small way,” he notes. “Examples of the saints are not necessarily for imitation, but for us to see that someone like her, back in the 11th century, was able to do this, and ask ‘why can’t I?’”