We all love stories about superheroes. Who doesn’t like — and secretly want — special powers and abilities well beyond what mere mortals seem capable of doing?
Many such stories appear in action movies or comic books. But the church has its own book of superheroes — more than 7,000 of them.
It’s called the “Roman Martyrology.” And its list includes every canonized saint in the church’s 2,000-year history. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it: “The church has painstakingly collected the records of those who persevered to the end in witnessing to their faith” (n 2474).
The first saints, of course, were the apostles, as well as Jesus’ family. Then came the martyrs, those who died giving witness to Christ. (“Martyr” comes from a Greek word meaning “witness.”)
Word of mouth
For the first years of the church, the stories of these saints were shared by word of mouth or scattered written records. The first official listings of the lives of saints were about the martyrs. This is because the first churches were often built over their graves. So the local churches compiled histories of their local saints.
These listings were eventually united, in the fourth century, into something called the Depositio martyrum (which roughly translates as “the listing of the martyrs”). Not long after came a book known as the Depositio episcoporum, listing the lives of various bishops who had led the church. In the Eastern churches, which were not separated from Rome until the Great Schism of 1054, they put together a similar listing of the holy ones, called the Synaxarion. (The Greek word means “to put together.”)
These original catalogs kept expanding with the additions of various regional saints and martyrs. Finally, in about the fifth century, we find the famous listing known as the Hieronymian. It gets its name from being — erroneously — attributed to St. Jerome, the famous translator of the Bible from Greek into Latin. (His fourth-century version of the Bible is known as “the Vulgate.”)
Many historical saints’ books rose up across the church. For example, a famous one was written by St. Bede the Venerable, a skilled historian living in Britain in the seventh century.
All of these earlier histories were combined into the present Roman Martyrology in 1583. It needed a lot of editing and by 1584, the third edition was approved by Pope Gregory XIII. The pope made its use mandatory upon the whole Roman Catholic Church. The current Roman Martyrology was last updated in 2004, but was only published in Latin. There are unofficial English translations, but the last approved English translation dates to before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
The Roman Martyrology gives a calendar listing for each of the saints. We are used to thinking that certain days of the church year honor special saints, such as St. Joseph on March 19 and St. John the Baptist on June 24. However, each day of the church year honors many saints, sometimes 20 or more on one day.
There is a liturgical “proper” of the Mass for each one of these saints on their feast day. This means they may be mentioned in the celebration of the Mass that day. Mostly, they are not — except in their local area — since there are so many. However, that does not mean they are not remembered. Their names also appear in the martyrology of the breviary, the official book of the Divine Office (the Liturgy of the Hours). This is the daily prayer of the church which religious orders and priests (and many other people on their own) pray each day.
And, yes, the listing of saints does mean that they are remembered on Sundays. While they are not mentioned in the Mass that day, they are remembered in the prayer of the Divine Office.
In 1969, with the revision of the liturgy under St. Paul VI, and following the decrees of Vatican II, several saints were removed from the calendar of the church. This included, most famously, St. Christopher.
Fr. William Saunders explains what happened following Vatican II: “a special commission — Consilium — examined the calendar and removed those saints whose historical base was more grounded on tradition than provable fact, changed the feast days to coincide with the anniversary of a saint’s death or martyrdom whenever possible, and added saints that were recently canonized and had universal Church appeal.” (Fr. Saunders is vicar for faith formation for the Arlington, Va., Diocese.)
This certainly did not mean Christopher was demoted from sainthood. The saints “removed” were simply determined to have been legendary or, at least, the facts of their histories could not be directly proven. But they are still honored.
As Dr. Jeremy Holmes of Wyoming Catholic College noted, “This move toward the historical was not as sweeping as is generally thought. Often, when something about a saint cannot be verified, his life is described in the martyrology under the clause ut fertur, ‘as is said.’”
The current Roman Martyrology, in its fifth part, lists each saint and blessed of any particular day and gives a brief history of their lives and, yes, their deaths in the case of martyrs.
It must be remembered that the martyrology is not an exhaustive list of saints. For example, it does not include the 45 saints canonized under Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI or the 55 (as of Oct. 2019) canonized by Pope Francis. However, these will no doubt be added in the next superhero edition.
Sources: newliturgicalmovement.org; the Catholic Encyclopedia; Introduction to the Roman Martyrology; the New Catholic Encyclopedia; the Encyclopedia Britannica; catholicculture.org; and the Vatican Information Service