On Patron Saints, by Bishop John Edward Cuthbert Hedley

The Saints show forth the splendour, goodness, and power of the Incarnation – Certain Saints specially solicitous and powerful in particular places, or on behalf of kingdoms, towns, and persons – Advantages of celebrating the feasts of Patron Saints – How this may be done.

There is a matter which, though at first sight it may seem of secondary importance, is nevertheless most intimately connected with the Incarnation, and there fore with man’s salvation. It is, the Patronage of the Saints.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa, preaching on the heroic life and sufferings of the glorious soldier-martyr of Anatolia, Saint Theodore, concludes with these fervent words: “Holy Martyr, pray and intercede for thy country before the King and Lord of us and of thee! We fear affliction we see danger near! Not far distant is the enemy of all good, ready to fall upon us! Thou art a soldier fight in our behalf! Thou art a Martyr use thy right, and speak for thy fellow-servants! And if thy prayer and advocacy are not enough, gather together the choir of thy brother-martyrs, and plead in unison for us who invoke thee!”

The Saints are the manifestation of the splendour, the goodness, and the power of the Incarnate Word.

First, the glory and splendour of Christ shines in the Saints, whom His Blood has purchased. He came to show to the world a perfect human nature. His sacred Humanity, consisting of a body and soul like ours, was endowed with every gift of nature, and crowned with every endowment of the Holy Ghost. It was innocent, it was pure, it was holy. It had the dignity of true humility, the loveliness of perfect obedience, the royal robe of perfect charity. It chose the Cross; and all its unspeakable sufferings were transformed into a flame of love which made the Sacred Heart a holocaust for God and for man. In these splendours the Saints have shared, and chiefly most Holy Mary. Not one of them not even the Mother of God was united to a Divine Person as the Humanity of Jesus was. But this very fact made them a greater triumph of the Precious Blood. For just as the clouds of the morning or of the evening spread and give colour to the pure rays of the rising or the setting sun, so the frail earthly natures of the children of Adam bring home more strikingly to our minds and hearts the glories which Jesus Christ came to reveal to the earth. The sacrifice, the self-annihilation, the charity of the Saints are very far from the example of their Lord and Master; but they are more than this sinful world is worthy of. They light up its dark places and glorify all that nature has given it. They encourage every human heart to hope that since the Precious Blood can do such marvellous things, it will do something even for the poorest and the humblest of us sinners.

This confidence is not deceived. As the Saints magnify the glories of Christ, so they multiply His love. He came, at once for the sake of His own great glory, and for the benefit of men. So the Saints have been made what they are, not for them selves only, but for the souls of the whole world. Our Lord and Saviour was nothing, and did nothing, which had not some influence on the salvation of those souls He loved so much. Every ray of His glory was, and is, an arrow of divine beneficence, intended to heal where it struck, and to save every heart that it pierced. If He was great and royal, His prerogatives were wholly a pledge and a security to erring men that He was their Shepherd, their Father, and their Friend. Each Saint carries a transcript of this message to men. All the virtues of all the Saints are pledges of goodness to their brethren who are in the world. Every Saint is so far an image of Christ Jesus that he illustrates and magnifies the goodness of God to the whole race. And it may truly be said that many a poor and sinful man, looking upon Holy Mary or on some Saint that he loves, has felt his heart soften to the feeling of God’s fatherly love moved, perhaps, more effectively at a given moment by the thought of a Saint than ever he had been by the too much neglected thought of his Saviour.

Finally, the Saints carry into the universe of human destinies the power of Jesus Christ. The dispensation of graces and gifts accompanies the glory of holiness. The nearer a Saint is to his Lord, the more things is he appointed over. Thus, according to the teaching of Saint Bernard, all the graces of Christ come to us through the hands of the Virgin Mother because she is the greatest triumph of His redeeming Blood. But this prerogative of Mary does not interfere with the patronage of the other Saints of God. Heavenly dispensations are not as earthly. In the realm of eternal joy there is an order, a harmony, a play of spiritual colour and proportion, which is only faintly imaged in this universe below. Down from the throne of Jesus come the blessings of redemption through a thousand ministries of glory. It all comes straight from Him, because there is not one in all those Choirs and Hierarchies and Hosts and Armies of Heaven whose being does not take its every movement from the Sacred Heart. But it comes also, in a most true sense, from them, each in his degree and order. Thus the Immaculate Mother, the Angels, the Prophets, the Patriarchs, the Apostles, the Martyrs, the Confessors, and the Virgins, although they are hidden from our sight are part of our life. This is the Communion of Saints proclaimed in the ninth article of the Creed. They are our brethren; and the difference between them and us lies in this, that whereas we lift up our hands for grace and blessing, they now share in the power and prerogative of the Redeemer, and are able to help us by their intercession.

Devotion to particular Saints, who are called Patrons, is a characteristic of Catholic practice, which is indeed much older even than the Church herself, and which flows from belief in the Communion of Saints. The flock of Jesus Christ has ever felt the conviction that there are certain individual Saints, now in the heavenly country, who are connected by special and intimate relations with particular places and persons on earth. When the Lord God, in the Old Testament, would express His righteous indignation with the people of Israel, He said that He would not hear even Moses and Samuel interceding for them. The three Children in the fiery furnace pray for strength, and say, “Take not away Thy mercy from us for the sake of Abraham Thy beloved, and Isaac Thy servant, and Israel Thy holy one.” We read, in the Second Book of Machabees, that Judas saw in a vision the High Priest, Onias, praying for the people; and that he beheld, in another vision, the great Jeremias himself, interceding for his nation and it was said to him, ” This is the lover of his brethren, who prayeth much for the people and for the Holy City.” It may well be set down as a law in the dealings of God with men, that those of His servants whom He has made use of for any work or office upon earth, carry on that work and continue to hold that office even in their places in the Heavens. Our Lord said to His Apostles, “You are they who have continued with Me in My temptations; and I dispose to you, as My Father hath disposed to Me, a Kingdom; that you may eat and drink at My table in My Kingdom, and may sit upon thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” Those who have faithfully served God on earth enter into the power of God in the Heavens. Even on earth, as we read in numberless passages of Holy Scripture, their prayers and their merits could move mountains, raise the dead, and conquer kingdoms. They are no less mighty, but much more so, when they sit at the table of the King of Kings, and “judge” where they formerly could only plead. Thus the great Fathers and Patriarchs of the Jewish people were its protectors all through its history. Thus the Apostles, by whose preaching the world received the Gospel of Christ, continue to promote the faith and to protect it even to the consummation of the world. Saint Peter can never forget his See of Rome, nor his successors in the Supreme Pontificate. Saint Paul unceasingly looks down on the labours of preachers and teachers all over the world in every generation. Saint John never fails to uphold those who proclaim the Divinity of Christ. The Evangelists bless and help all who defend Christianity with their pen.

There is not one of that glorious Choir who does not remember the lands where his feet trod and his blood was shed, and pray with powerful pleading for its conversion and its well-being. Neither is this less true of those other holy men who resembled the Apostles in their zeal and success. He to whom a people owes its faith is for ever its patron. Thus Saint Patrick has still that special love and concern for Ireland which he showed in his marvellous life. Saint Gregory and Saint Augustine are England’s Apostles still as they were thirteen hundred years ago. Saint Boniface can never fail to watch over Germany, Saint Anscarius over Northern Europe, Saints Cyril and Methodius over the Slav races, Saint Francis Xavier over Japan and the East. Besides these, a thousand cities of Christendom have each its saintly Bishop, perhaps the founder of its Christianity, to whom it belongs in love and guardianship; as, for example, Saint Martin of Tours, Saint Germanus of Auxerre, Saint Hilary of Poictiers, Saint Remigius of Rheims, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, Saint Mellon of Rouen; indeed, there is hardly a town in France, Spain, Germany, Italy, or Britain which does not boast of its saintly Patron and Protector forgotten, it may be, in many of them, by a generation which heresy or irreligion has corrupted, but still loving and powerful as ever, did the just judgments of God allow the intercession of a Moses or a Samuel to prevail. Thickly scattered over the face of the earth are also the tombs of the Martyrs. Sometimes the sacred relics lie in the very spot where the servant of God has confessed his Lord, and where he endured the rack, the scourge, and the fire. Hither, during many generations, the faithful have flocked to honour God in His Saints, and to venerate the memory of those who have given their life for their faith. Here innumerable miracles have rewarded the devotion of believers and caused men to rejoice in the Communion of Saints. Here great Churches and glorious Shrines have testified to the power of God and the faith of the multitude. Nations and races have had their special heroes their leaders, their pioneers, their makers, who have built them up, in faith and religion first, and next in civilisation and the arts; who have been kings or chieftains, bishops, or missionaries, Thus, to say nothing of other countries, we have Saint Edward in England, Saint Margaret in Scotland, Saint Malachy in Ireland, and Saint David in Wales. Religious Orders, pious Associations and Congregations honour the unworldly and wonder-working men and women whom God raised up as their founders and propagators. No lapse of time can sever or weaken the bonds that unite them with the work they have done, or with the spiritual children who have entered into the inheritance they have left. Every state and condition, all the Christian arts and professions, all the things that men do and pursue in their earthly career, have had, under the guidance of faith, their patron Saints and protectors. Some fitness, derived from their work in the flesh, or from the spirit and character of their sanctity, some irresistible choice of the popular will, or some formal appointment of the Holy See, has claimed, and, as we cannot doubt, has secured, for the help and encouragement of the generations which still struggle for salvation, the intervention of those blessed, loving and powerful friends of Jesus now sitting with Him in the heavens. And there are few individual men and women among the faithful who have not one or more among the heavenly citizens, adopted in baptism, in confirmation or otherwise, to whom they cultivate a special devotion and by whom they humbly hope to be guarded and drawn near to God.

Devotion to Patron Saints is, therefore, a widening and an intensifying of devotion to the Incarnate Saviour. They magnify Him; they illustrate Him; and like heralds, pages, and ministers, they enlarge the expectations and the appreciation of men, so that no one may miss or mistake his Sovereign, or fail to understand how great a Prince He is. And as all spiritual influences gain force and strength in proportion as they are more individual, our Patron Saints, as belonging to particular localities, and to ourselves rather than to the world at large, bring with their holy patronage a powerful quickening of spiritual life. The church where the body of the Martyr lies, the hallowed spot where the confessor of Christ lived and laboured, the very town or region whose annals are full of the traditions of a venerable name, appeal to that feeling and that imagination which, although they are not religion, are so useful a foundation for religion. The visit to the shrine, the pilgrimage in company with others these and similar practices help us to remember the word to come and to turn more frequently to Jesus Christ. Daily invocation, and the use of prayers which enshrine better than marble or bronze the glorious memory of our holy Protector, accustom the heart to live in the presence of God, and soften it to that Christian piety which is the antidote to worldliness. No genuine client of the Saints can be ignorant that in order to honour a Saint it is indispensable to live a good Christian life and to imitate his virtues. A Patron’s feast-day cannot be honestly celebrated by any one who has upon his conscience the burden of mortal sin. There is no more grateful homage to the heroes who hated sin and fought against sin, and overcame it through the grace of Christ our Saviour, than to approach the Sacrament of Penance and to make a devout Communion. Worldly amusements are no more agreeable to our Patron Saints than those meats which the foolish Pagans used to place before their senseless idols. Any celebration of a Saint’s day which leads to dangerous temptations, to too great freedom of manners, or to intemperance, is much more likely to draw down judgment than to move our Patron to help us; and if we want a reason why, in latter days, the Saints of our country do not obtain for us the benedictions which signalised the times of Our forefathers, we need not hesitate to say that it is because the honour now paid to them is too often secular and worldly, connected with sensuality and sin, rather than pious and religious, to the glory of God and the good of the souls of men.

It is our duty to keep alive the memory of our Heavenly Patrons, and not to suffer their honour to die out, or their invocation to cease. In these days, and these regions, if we except one or two great names which it is not necessary here to particularize, we must principally connect this devotion with the titular Saints of our Churches. It is, indeed, a sad consequence of the unhappy change of religion that, in this country, the ancient Saints whose names are scattered upon every village, mountain, and valley, have been well-nigh forgotten. The day will come, let us hope, when the old Saints of this land will again be loved and invoked, and when the best known of them at least will be for our children the powerful Patrons which they were in the ages of faith. Meanwhile, the names of the Saints of Wales, of Ireland, and England, are given to the Churches which we are painfully building to take the place of those others whose altars have been broken in pieces and whose sanctuaries have been desecrated. Although divided to some extent in nationality, these servants of the Living God were all united in faith and sacraments, in the Holy Sacrifice, and in obedience to the Apostolic See of Rome. Their prayers cease not for the flock which devoutly invokes them. They are ready to intercede for us. Nay, even before we invoke them, they do intercede for us, day by day, year by year obtaining for us many and many a blessing, both spiritual and temporal; protecting our holy faith, and bringing the means of conversion to those whom we welcome into the fold of true Church. With increased devotion, there will be fresh evidences of their power and patronage. A priest who, with his flock, observes with due reverence and solemnity the feast of the Titular of his Church, celebrates a domestic festival of the deepest interest. Can it be doubted that the glorified servant of God, who in God sees and hears the devout piety of those who specially claim his affection, will be deaf, or in different? Would it have been so when he lived on the earth? Is his zeal less, or his charity more feeble, or his power shortened, now that he lives with God?

We would remind, then, the rectors of missions, that the feast of the Saint to whom their church is dedicated, whether the church be fully consecrated or not, must be kept by them and by their assistant clergy as a Double of the First Class with an Octave (except in Lent). The Bishop has the power to transfer the “solemnity” to the following Sunday, that is, without interfering with the Mass and Office of the feast itself on its proper day, to permit on such Sunday one solemn or public Mass of the Patron. In most of our missions it is on the Sunday only that any large number of the flock can be gathered to celebrate the feast of a Patron Saint. On such Sundays, then, let the Church’s festival be solemnly kept. Let it be prepared for and announced; let the flock be exhorted to the sacraments; let the external circumstances be as inspiring and imposing as resources may permit; in one word, let the opportunity be taken to lift up the hearts of all to heavenly desires, and to stimulate faith and piety in every breast. And may the Saints whose names we thus invoke, and whose memory we thus honour, draw down in numerable graces upon every flock and on the whole diocese, that we may all live more and more for God, as devout children of the Holy Catholic Church, ready as the Saints were to lay down our very lives for our faith, and looking forward with them to life everlasting.