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A saint is a former human being, now dead, whose spirit is said to dwell in heaven with some god. Such spirits are identified by their having belonged to heroically virtuous or holy people when attached to their bodies on earth. (The word 'saint' derives from 'sanctus', the Latin word for holy.)
Some spirits are officially recognized as saints by Christian ecclesiastical authority in a process known as canonization. Different ecclesiastical authorities used different criteria and hence have different canons (catalogues) of saints.
Keeping a canon of saints assists in recruitment of new church members, mythologizes the faith, and allows for currying favor from subordinates close to the boss. Saints are venerated not worshipped, that is, they are admired and sought as intercessors because of their special place in the hierarchy. Saints are in the inner circle, so to speak, and because of their status a word from them to the boss might be sufficient to get a wish granted.
Why saints would intercede for the living seems inexplicable to the logical mind. One, they have nothing to gain by acting as anybody's intercessor. They are already in glory and their glory does not depend on others reaching glory and there is no reason they should prefer the glory of one person over another. Earthly beings might grant favors only to those who ask, but supernatural beings would have no reason for favoring only those who curry favor from them. Two, there is no reason why a god would be more accessible to the prayers of a saint than to those of a holy person on earth. Why use a middleman when you can go directly to the source? Three, if a god would not listen to an unholy and unworthy person who wants a favor, why would a god listen to a saint's plea for such a person? The unworthy shouldn't get a hearing from the boss or his underlings. Were it not for their supposed utility here on earth, saints would be superfluous to humans.
That sainthood is valued for its intercessory value is clearly indicated by the fact that the primary method of identifying who will be canonized is by the performing of miracles. To even be considered for canonization you must not only have led an exemplary holy life, you must perform a miracle that shows you are answering the prayers of those who pray exclusively to you. Such miracles are identified by a theological board and require some sort of connection to an allegedly miraculous cure. For example, Katherine Drexel, an heiress from Philadelphia who became a nun, was canonized because several cures have been attributed to her intercession. Drexel's spirit is being credited with being instrumental in the "cure" of the temporary deafness of young girl. Edith Stein, who was recently canonized, allegedly interceded to save the life of a young girl who had swallowed an obviously non-lethal dose of Tylenol. "Padre Pio" was a controversial cult figure and alleged stigmatic.
In his effort to provide role models for the faithful, Pope John Paul II has added more than 450 names to the canon of saints since he took over the head of the Roman Catholic Church in 1978. That's about 150 more than have been sainted in the past four hundred years.
"John Paul II is history's champion saintmaker" by Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY, Oct. 3, 2002: John Paul II is a saint machine.
The 82-year-old pontiff heads into his 24th year of papacy this month having named an astonishing 463 saints -- so far. On Sunday, he declares yet one more.
For Roman Catholics, who believe their god makes saints and the pope discerns them, this is one eagle-eyed pope. He has recognized more saints than any pope in history -- more, in fact, than all the popes of the past four centuries combined.