How to become a (Medieval) Saint

Saints come in many shapes and sizes and yet only a select few of all the faithful have ever been canonised. What marks you out from the crowd if your dearest ambition is to become a Medieval Saint?

In 1234 Pope Gregory IX decreed all candidates for canonisation had to be investigated and approved by the Pope. Unit this date saints were usually spontaneously proclaimed by local communities and their cult could be approved by the local Bishop. To qualify for consideration a person had to have led a perfect (or near perfect) Christian life and preferably have performed miracles during their lifetime and posthumously (a requirement after 1234). It helped to leave some devoted followers who could write a Life recording all their wondrous and saintly deeds to be presented to the Pope. St Bernard of Clairvaux’s Life was begun during his lifetime in preparation for canonisation.

If Sainthood is your aim becoming a priest or better yet a monk or nun is generally a very good idea. It was easier to lead an exemplary saintly life away from the cares of the world. Medieval lay men and women “living in the world” did become venerated as saints many of these were martyrs. Some saints were members of the lay community who led good and charitable lives and were consequently venerated by their grateful community such as Blessed Margaret of Castello (1287-1320). Margaret who was blind and crippled nursed the sick and dying and visited prisoners in Castello.

What better way to plot your route to sainthood than by examining the lives of some of the most famous saints of the Middle Ages?

1. Found a Religious Order – St Francis of Assisi

St Francis of Assisi was and is a very popular saint. He died in 1226 and was canonised within two years. St Francis was the founder of the Franciscan Order. He also invented the Nativity Scene, travelled to Egypt to preach to the Sultan al-Kamil and was known for his affinity with nature. Francis and his order required individual poverty of its members similar to that of the Early Church described in Acts of the Apostles.

Francis, genuinely contemptuous of money, threw it on a window sill, treating it as if it were dust. He wanted to possess wisdom, which is better than gold, and prudence, which is more precious than silver – Life of Francis of Assisi, Thomas of Celano

Giving away worldly riches is a common theme in saints’ lives. Francis also received the Stigmata (wounds of Christ) in 1224 confirming his sanctity. “his heart was filled with perplexity at the great novelty of this vision, the marks of nails began to appear in his hands and feet” (Life of Francis of Assisi, Thomas of Celano)


2. Be a martyr – St Lucy

Lucy was a very early saint. She lived in Syracuse in the third century and is revered as a virgin martyr dying c.304 during the Diocletian persecutions. Her cult was so widespread that Saint Aldhelm and the Venerable Bede mention her feast day in their writings in eighth century England. Little is known of her life except that during her martyrdom her executioner ripped out her eyes. Another version of this story is that Lucy plucked them out herself when someone complimented her for her beautiful eyes. Anyone dying as a martyr did not have to perform miracles to be canonised.


3. Lead an exemplary life – St Benedict

St Benedict lead a truly exemplary life performing miracles during his life, guiding others in the Christian life and living the perfect apostolic life. As well as all this Benedict is revered as the father of Western Monasticism. He created a monastic rule that was the basis of all subsequent variations of monastic life in the West. A tough act to follow! Benedict was also lucky as adoption of his Rule was encouraged by St Gregory the Great who also wrote a Life of Benedict (and his sister Scholastica) in his famous Dialogues. Gregory summed up Benedict:

I should like to tell you much more about this saintly abbot, but I am purposely passing over some of his miraculous deeds in my eagerness to take up those of others. There is one more point, however, I want to call to your attention. With all the renown he gained by his numerous miracles, the holy man was no less outstanding for the wisdom of his teaching…Anyone who wishes to know more about his life and character can discover in his Rule exactly what he was like as an abbot”  – Life of St. Benedict, Gregory the Great

So my final words of wisdom? Become rich, give away your wealth, join a monastery and wait for canonisation!

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