The word saint (Latin sanctus = sacred or having been made sacred) has several meanings. In everyday usage, saints are unusually kind, ethical people who perform good works on a local or grand scale which almost everyone can understand and appreciate. Examples would be, “That lady at the charity drive is a real saint” or “Bob’s wife is a real saint to put up with such a grouchy old man!”
The term also denotes the faithful Jews of the Bible and the body of Christian believers. A priest at a parish I attend says in homily that the main point of being a Christian is to become saints in heaven. So going to Mass isn’t only about the social aspects. That’s a part of it, for sure, but the main point is to become a saint worthy of heaven.
For some, saints are Buddhist arhats (monks having achieved Nirvana) and bodhisattvas (monks forgoing entry into Nirvana in order to help others reach that threshold). However, it seems dubious that the realms these saints achieve are the same, qualitatively speaking, as realms created by God. Recall that, no matter which way you slice it, Buddhists don’t believe in God, which is a huge theological difference from religions that do believe in God. And no political correctness will change that difference, not even well-intentioned political correctness.
The term saints also refers to Taoist, Confucian and Hindu sages and gurus (Skt. guru = teacher), African and Amerindian elders, as well as the Shamans of Central and Southeast Asia, Oceania, North America and the Arctic.
In Islam the righteous departed are said to mediate between heaven and Earth.
Robert Ellsberg regards great figures like Galileo Galilei, Leo Tolstoy, Stephen Biko and Dante Alighieri as saints in his book, All Saints.
Some believe that all public figures called “saints” are equally holy but this view is probably more about human preconceptions than God’s assessment of individual holiness.
In Catholicism, the canonized saint leads an exceedingly humble and holy life serving God, is often persecuted, may be martyred and performs by the power of God at least two verified miracles. Some critics of the Catholic process of canonization say that the alleged miracles are, for the most part, cooked up by the Vatican when they want to make someone a saint, mostly for political reasons.
Catholics also believe in the communion of saints, the idea that all souls, except for the damned, are united in a “mystical body” with Christ as the head. So the idea of interconnected souls is not necessarily something of the occult (unless one views Catholicism as a Satanic cult, as some do).
Another aspect of the Catholic faith is the belief that individuals cooperate with God’s plan of salvation through vocal and mental prayer (interior contemplation). Prayerful saints cooperate with the divine plan but do not effect salvation through their own power.
Catholics may pray for one another but again, they request God’s help. They don’t play the role of spiritual “big shot” or “guru” like some in other religious paths do. At least, they shouldn’t. This unsavory element arguably creeps in with hot shot charismatic preachers who make the rounds in Catholic circles, charging considerable fees for inspirational speaking or guided retreats (some retreats seeming more like middle class getaways, social events or fundraisers than serious spiritual sanctuaries).
Some Protestants object to the idea of the Catholic saint, saying that the saints are nothing but manmade gods or goddesses—that is, pagan. Catholics reply to this misguided charge that saints are friends and servants of God, not a god nor God. Many Protestants pray for others but object to the Catholic idea of interceding saints. To this the Catholic replies: If someone on Earth can pray for another person on Earth, why cannot a soul in heaven pray for someone on Earth?
According to Catholic teaching there are innumerable unrecognized saints. These unsung heroes of the spirit are said to achieve a great degree of spiritual purity without ever having set foot in a monastery or abbey.
This is good to remember. Otherwise we might misunderstand or judge harshly some individuals in contemporary society not primarily concerned with sex, wealth, status or raising a family. In fact, there seems to be a recent trend to call people “mentally ill” if they don’t conform to prevailing norms which, perhaps, are not always in line with trying to follow God’s will.
In a nutshell, the true individual is often misunderstood and sometimes persecuted by the crowd. Considering the tremendous diversity of individuals and spiritual paths throughout our ever changing world, to insist on rigid criteria for sainthood seems both arbitrary and unwise.