While looking through the calendar of saints in the Liturgy of the Hours or the Roman Missal, we may see the diversity of the saints in the Catholic Church, but there are really only two kinds of saints: martyrs and confessors.
It’s true the saints of the Catholic Church are a diverse group of holy men and women, united with us in prayer and interceding for us with our Father in heaven. They are virgins, wives and mothers, husbands and fathers; founders of religious orders; apostles, evangelists, popes, bishops, priests, monks, friars, brothers, nuns and sisters; teachers, pastors, those who worked with the underprivileged. They represent every age of the Church’s history and every inhabited continent on the Earth. But, ultimately, they are either one of two things: a martyr for the faith or a confessor of the faith. Beyond that, as martyrs or confessors, they share one essential trait: they loved God and His Church more than they loved themselves. The martyrs shed their blood for that love; the confessors did everything but make that ultimate sacrifice.
Martyrs for the Faith
The first martyr was one of the deacons chosen by the apostles to do the practical work in the early Christian communities, St. Stephen. The story of his martyrdom is told in the Acts of the Apostles (chapters 6-8), and features the telling detail that those members of the Sanhedrin who stoned him laid their cloaks at the feet of Saul of Tarsus (see 7:58).
St. James, beheaded by the Sanhedrin, was another apostolic-era martyr mentioned in Acts. Except for St. John, all of Jesus’ apostles were martyred, including St. Matthias, appointed by the remaining 11 apostles after Judas Iscariot’s betrayal and suicide.
Because of Roman persecution in the first three centuries, all the early saints were martyrs like the apostles, such as St. Clement of Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Polycarp and the saints named in Eucharistic Prayer I — for example, Sts. Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia and Anastasia. The Church did not have a highly developed process for proclaiming saints. The early Christians shared the stories of the martyrs who suffered at the hands of the Romans. They hallowed the sites of their executions, and saved the relics of their human remains. The tradition of placing those martyrs’ relics in the altar began in the third century. All these actions, including prayers for their intercession, signified the development of a cult of devotion to the martyr.
Start of the Confessors
Once Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, tolerating Christians, and Emperor Theodosius later made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire, the opportunity for martyrdom decreased.
Thus the practice of canonizing confessors began, which meant that the Church needed to develop a process for investigating the sanctity of a Catholic who died of natural causes. Sometimes the people would manifestly proclaim the holiness of a bishop or some other leader in the community. There was a chance that this proclamation was in error, so the bishop of the diocese needed to have the authority to supervise what became known as the cause for canonization.
This meant gathering information about the holy person’s life, including anything he or she might have written. The investigators would talk to the people who worked or lived with the holy person. And most important of all, as Catholics prayed for the intercession of someone they believed was a saint in heaven, they would find those who had been miraculously healed and made whole. The miracles were the essential manifestation of the saint’s intercession with God in heaven.
“Soldier of Christ”
The first saint to be canonized as a confessor was St. Martin of Tours, whose feast is celebrated on Nov. 11, which is also Veteran’s Day in the United States and Remembrance Day in many British Commonwealth countries (Great Britain, Australia, Canada, etc.). This fourth-century confessor was a convert from paganism, a soldier in the Roman Army who refused to fight after his baptism — “I am a soldier of Christ,” he said, “I refuse to fight.” He was arrested and escaped execution when the enemy surrendered and the battle was averted. A disciple of St. Hilary of Poitiers, who was a great defender of Catholic teaching against the Arian heresy, St. Martin became a hermit and then a monk. The people of Tours proclaimed him their bishop in 371, and he died in 397, after a life of great charity, miraculous healings and defenses against the devil, as well as dealing with heretics and pagans.
During the Middle Ages, devotion to St. Martin of Tours was widespread. His shrine was on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The crucial event of his conversion, when he offered half of his military cloak to a poor man, is a famous image in Western art. He is the patron saint of soldiers, horses and tailors.
His counterpart among martyrs might be St. Sebastian, also a Roman soldier, executed during the reign of Diocletian in the third century. The first attempt to punish what the emperor regarded as treason failed when St. Sebastian was tied to a tree and shot with arrows, but survived. Sometime around A.D. 288, Diocletian had him clubbed to death when that attempt failed. St. Sebastian tied to a tree with arrows piercing him all over his body is a another great image in Western art, and St. Ambrose of Milan, another confessor and bishop, helped spread devotion to this martyr. Pope St. Damasus I built the church in Rome now called St. Sebastian Outside the Walls to venerate his relics. Both the martyr St. Sebastian and the confessor St. Martin of Tours dedicated their lives to Jesus Christ. As soldiers in the Roman Army, they both stood up to the pagan rulers of their time to assert their higher loyalty to Him. But the image we have of St. Sebastian is of a martyr tied to a pillar, shot through with arrows, while the prevailing image of St. Martin is astride a horse, handing half of his cloak to a poor man. St. Martin’s life after that act of courteous charity led to the medieval period’s great devotion to him.
Stephanie A. Mann is the author of “Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation” (Scepter Publishers, 2009). She resides in Wichita, Kan., and blogs at www.supremacyandsurvival.blogspot.com.