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In the New Testament, the term saint is used to describe any Christian believer, alive or dead, no matter what their importance in terms of church history. Many of Paul's letters are adressed 'to all the saints...' and sometimes '...along with the elders'. For example Ephesians opens with " the saints which are at Ephesus...". The term developed in later centuries, and took on much larger connotations. In the modern, popular usage among Protestants, it is used to simply mean a perfect or extra religious person.

In the Catholic and Orthodox churches, a saint is a person who has been canonised by a Christian church, which (almost?) always happens after their death. In many Protestant churches, the word is used more generally to refer to anyone who is a Christian. The remainder of this article will focus on "saints" as the term is used by Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Saints are thought to be able to act as intermediaries between God and people by praying to God on behalf of specific people, sometimes at the request of believers. Though some individuals are widely held to be saints in their lifetimes, they are not recognized so by churches. The word "saint" comes from the Latin word sanctus which means "holy." A few English-speaking Eastern Orthodox believers prefer to use the English word "holy" rather than "saint", or use the two terms interchangably, and so will refer to St. Peter as "Holy Peter" or "the Holy Apostle Peter" for example. In most other languages, the word for "saint" would be more literally translated "holy", such as hagios in Greek, santo in Spanish, saint or sacre in French, etc. A related word in English is "sanctify", which means "to make holy". So in the broad sense of the word, "saint" can mean all those who have been sanctified, or all believers. The narrower and more common sense of the word today is those whom the Church has widely recognized as having been sanctified, as demonstrated in a number of different ways. This practice also explains why the names of angels are usually preceded by the name 'saint' despite their lack of a human existence - Saint Michael never had to be canonized; the name means 'Holy Michael'.

The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church are the churches in which the veneration of saints is most common. They do not, however, honor all the same individuals as saints. Some of the reasons for differences are historical, rooted in the Great Schism. Others are local. In the Early Christian Church, treatment as a saint depended on local and regional recognition of an individual's sanctity and reputation of miracles. Most saints had only local devotional cults, and only the most famous - the apostles, the companions of Christ, persons mentioned in Scripture, and very few international celebrities - developed wide-spread devotion.

The Western church developed its institutionalized system of canonization after the Great schism, and so a highly organized calendar of observation of saints' days is seen in Roman Catholicism and a few of its break-away churches (the Anglican communion has partially preserved the idea of an organized attention to the saints). The Orthodox churches also have a calendar of saints' days, in some cases honoring saints on the same day as in the West. However, they often have more variation in which saints are remembered, since the calendars are largely determined by the different patriarchs, metropolitans and archbishops.

Even inside the Roman Catholic church, there are different extents of devotion. Some saints' days are observed only in one diocese {I don't know of any actual examples of that, but it's canonically possible}. Many are honored as saints in their own home region, and others are honored as saints only by a particular religious order. For instance, each monastic order honors many individuals who were members of that order with special saint-days who are ignored in the broader structure of parishes. In many Eastern Orthodox parishes, it is the custom to remember the names of members of that parish as part of the liturgical prayers long after those members have died.

A related practice is the veneration of relics. A relic is a part of a saint's body, often a small bone fragment. Relics are venerated or honored much in the same way that icons are venerated. The practice began during the early centuries when Christians had to hide in catacombs to escape persecution. In those circumstances, they were literally praying in the company of dead Christians. That reality, combined with belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the eventual resurrection of all believers, and the witnessing of miracles connected with relics, led to the current practice.

In both Western and Eastern churches, members often are given a "Saint's name" or the name of a patron saint at the time of their chrismation (typically right after baptism). This saint is given to that person to pray for them and intercede for them, and that person will give special honor to and pray to that saint. The date that the saint is honored in the church also becomes the new member's "saint's day" or "name day." Sometimes a person will become known in the church exclusively by their saint's name; then this name may be called the person's "ecclesial name", since it's the name by which they are known in the church.

This difference does not necessarily mean that the Western and Eastern churches do not admit to the validity of holy individuals in the other parts of the Church, but that they are not interested in each others lists or calendars.

A number of people are venerated as saints who may never have actually existed; the polite term for this is 'ahistorical.' Sorting out exactly which saints are historical is difficult, because of the larger difficulty of proving a negative: the absence of independent records of a saint's existence don't prove she or he never existed, because there are no specific records of the existence of many people who lived before the 20th century.

Related to this, some pre-Christian deities have been adopted as saints. Some cults seem to have been Christianized fairly directly--for example, Saint Brigid was a goddess before Christianity ever reached Ireland. In other cases, older beliefs and legends may have been grafted onto the lives of humans who are venerated as saints.

The converse of this is the idea that not all saints are known to any church. For example, anyone who died for his or her Christian belief is counted as a saint, whether or not anyone knows about the martyrdom. The doctrine is that God creates saints, and the church merely recognizes them: even if no church knows of a martyr, God does.

Within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, all church members are called "Saints", and the membership of the church "The Saints". In that faith, there is no concept of a Saint in the sense used by other Christians, only in the sense of a faithful follower of Christ. The original 12 followers of Jesus are referred to simply as the Apostles, as are the church leadership.

The concept of the bodhisattva in some schools of Buddhism is in some respects comparable to that of the Christian saint.

List of saints