In his youth, when St. Maximilian Kolbe saw the Blessed Mother in a vision, she offered him two crowns: a white crown for heroic virtue, and a red crown for martyrdom. Willingly accepting both crowns, he went on to live a life of such deep devotion to God that St. Pope John Paul II named him “the patron saint of our difficult century.”
Represented by St. Maximilian Kolbe’s two crowns, the two most common paths to sainthood consist of a heroic life of Christian virtues (leading to a person’s designation by the term “confessor”), or martyrdom. As the early Church underwent severe persecution, nearly all of the first saints were martyrs, beginning with St. Stephen, all of the Apostles except John, and countless others. The violence continued throughout the first three centuries of the Church, until general toleration of Christianity, most notably under Emperor Constantine, led to a decrease in the killings in Rome and other areas.
According to Stephanie Mann of Our Sunday Visitor, “Thus the practice of canonizing confessors began, which meant that the Church needed to develop a process for investigating the sanctity of a Catholic who died of natural causes.” The first saint canonized as a confessor rather than a martyr was St. Martin of Tours, a Roman soldier best known for dividing his cloak in order to clothe a poor beggar—only later to see Christ, in a vision, wearing the beggar’s portion of the cloak.
Although it exists as a distinct category of sainthood, the term “confessor” (short for “Confessor of the Faith”) did not seem originally intended as a title for all non-martyred saints. It was meant especially for Christians who had “confessed” Christ openly and had been punished severely for their faith. Thus, most early confessors withstood some form of intense persecution, yet not to the point of death.
The title later extended to those who effectually professed the faith. It has also become part of some saints’ official names, as in the case of St. Edward the Confessor, the King of England from 1042 to 1066, who was known for his deep concern for the welfare of his people. According to Christopher Heffron of Franciscan Media, the title originally only applied to men in much the same way that the title “virgin” originally only applied to women. He further writes, “The term [confessor] no longer appears in the General Roman Calendar to describe various saints.”
Although only certain holy men and women are canonized as saints, we are all called to sainthood through the grace of God. We hope that none of us will need to suffer death because of our faith, but we will all suffer persecution in some form during our lives. As Christ told the Apostles, “You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 10:22). We are all called to stand alongside God and do His will through the end, just like the confessors whom we honor as saints.
Featured image courtesy of stainedglassartist via Flickr