As the Latin Catholic Church marks All Saints Day on 1 November, it’s worth noting when and how the Eastern churches, especially the Catholic and Orthodox churches in the Byzantine tradition, honor all of the saints.
It doesn’t happen in the fall, but in the spring. The Byzantine Eastern churches celebrate the Sunday of All Saints, which takes place the first Sunday after Pentecost — and the timing has special significance, according to Russian Orthodox priest Father John McCuen:
“Now, the Holy Spirit has come; the church has been established, and is strengthened and guided by the Holy Spirit. Each one of us who has been baptized and chrismated [receiving the sacraments of initiation] in the Orthodox Church has received this same Spirit. So, today we celebrate the means by which we are sanctified, by which we may become saints.”
Father McCuen also looks at the meaning of the saints in Eastern Christianity:
“One of the reasons we have icons in our churches and icons in our homes is to remind ourselves that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses: the holy men and women who have shared our faith and way of life, and who, by their struggles and ascetic labors of prayer and fasting and worship and giving and forgiving and humility and service have shown us, in their words and deeds and lives the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, the same life given to each one of us in our baptism, empowered by the same Holy Spirit, who descended upon the disciples in the upper room. The holy men and women were no different than any of us. They are made of the same nature, the same “stuff” as we are; yet they did so well, they grew so close to God, that they left this world behind, and lived the life of the kingdom of heaven instead. We honor them for their example, and we ask them to pray on our behalf, trusting that the greatness of their love for God will be shared with us as well. The icons are a way to honor and remember them, and to be encouraged to follow their example.”
So how does someone become a saint in the Eastern churches? The Eastern Catholic churches follow the processes instituted by the Holy See. But, how does someone become an Orthodox saint? Father Joseph Frawley, a member of the Orthodox Church of America’s Canonization Commission, explains:
“The glorification of saints in the Orthodox Church is a recognition that God’s holiness is manifested in the church through these grace-filled men and women whose lives were pleasing to God. Very early on, the church recognized the righteous ancestors of Christ (forefathers), those who predicted his coming (prophets), and those who proclaimed the Gospel (apostles and evangelists). Then those who risked their lives and shed their blood to bear witness to Christ (martyrs and confessors) were also recognized by the church as saints. There was no special canonization process, but their relics were treasured and the annual anniversaries of their martyrdoms were celebrated.
“Later, the ascetics, who followed Christ through self-denial, were numbered among the saints. Bishops and priests who proclaimed the true faith and fought against heresy were added to the list. Finally, those in other walks of life who manifested holiness were recognized as saints.
“While the glorification of a saint may be initiated because of miracles, it is not an absolute necessity for canonization. The Roman Catholic Church requires three verified miracles in order to recognize someone as a saint; the Orthodox Church does not require this. There are some saints, including Saint Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain (commemorated 14 July) and Saint Innocent of Moscow (commemorated 31 March), who have not performed any miracles, as far as we know. What is required is a virtuous life of obvious holiness. And a saint’s writings and preaching must be ‘fully Orthodox,’ in agreement with the pure faith that we have received from Christ and the apostles and taught by the fathers and the ecumenical councils.
“Can the church ‘make’ a saint? The answer is no. Only God can do that. We glorify those whom God himself has glorified, seeing in their lives true love for God and their neighbors. The church merely recognizes that such a person has cooperated with God’s grace to the extent that his or her holiness is beyond doubt.
“Are saints ‘elected’ by special panels or by majority vote? Again, the answer is no. Long before an official inquiry into a person’s life is made, that person is venerated by the people where he or she lived and died. His or her memory is kept alive by the people who pray for his or her soul or who ask him or her for intercession. Sometimes people will visit his or her grave or have icons painted through their love for the person. Then a request is made, usually through the diocesan bishop, for the church to recognize that person as a saint. A committee, such as the Orthodox Church in America’s Canonization Commission, is formed to research the life of the person who is being considered for glorification and to submit a report to the holy synod stating its reasons why the person should or should not be recognized as a saint. Then the holy synod decides to number that person among the saints and have icons painted and liturgical services composed.