The saints should not be viewed as legendary superheroes: perfect people, close to God but not quite human. Since the earliest days of Christianity, the church has remembered exemplary Christians. The early Christians venerated in particular the memory of the martyrs; they preserved their remains and gathered at their graves on the anniversaries of their deaths. As Tertullian said of these witnesses, their blood was the seed of the church. It was also the origin of the cult of saints. But as the early era of persecution faded, it became clear that there were other ways—no less heroic—of living out one’s faith in the world, through prayer, asceticism and selfless service. New models of holiness emerged: desert monastics, teachers, missionaries, servants of the poor.
Over time our relationship to saints shifted. Miracles were attributed to their relics. The stories of their lives became increasingly embellished by accounts of supernatural power. People began to look on the saints not so much as examples of heroic faith but as wonderworkers—heavenly patrons—who had God’s ear and could do us favors. Every town, guild or station in life—whether sailors, musicians, blacksmiths, cheese makers or musicians—had its special patrons. St. Catherine of Alexandria (a saint who in all likelihood never existed) became the patroness of maidens and women students, philosophers, preachers and apologists, millers and wheelwrights.