One of the issues I had early on in life and most Protestants still have is the perceived way the Catholics deal with Saints. Early on, this was a factor for me that kept me away from the Catholic Church and from looking at it seriously. I felt that instead of praying to God, the Catholics were making “minor gods”, in the Saints, and using icons of Saints to worship them.
How wrong I was, and the Protestants are!
All people who die and go to heaven are felt, by the Catholic Church, and to the best of my knowledge, all Christian based faith systems, to be saints. A way to look at it are saints (those who die and go to heaven) and Saints (those who lead, at least at last parts of their life, a life of Christ and in Christ) being two categories of Saints, in the Catholic Church.
To be labeled as a Saint, big S vs little s, by the Catholic Church there are some steps to go through. First the last years of the life of the person must have been lived well by the standards of the Bible. By that I mean that the person used the Life of Christ as a way of life themselves. It may include being a martyr on behalf of Christ (and if you die fight for Christ, you almost automatically get Saint status). Next, after at least 5 years from the death of the person, a petition can be submitted to have the person Sanctified, or Sainted.
A background investigation is done to verify that, at least at the ends of that person’s life, they lived a good life, that they were not breaking the law of the Church, were helping the poor, etc.. If they meet a long list of requirements they are then reviewed to see how they have interceded on behalf of “the people”. In the old days, there had to be at least 5 “miracles” attributed to intercessory request of that person by “the people”. Today the requirement is 2 or 3, depending on the “severity” of the miracle.
What does being a Saint, vs a saint, mean? ALL it means is that the life, at least the later part, of this person is one that we should emulate and/or learn from. We should look at the good qualities of this person and strive to add them into our life as well.
Does the Catholic “worship” and pray to them? No, a good Catholic person does not. The Catholics believe that those in Heaven, all saints and Saints, are able to hear our pleas and request, and we “talk to the Saints” asking for their Intercessory prayers to God our Father. EVERY conversation with a Saint should be followed by a prayer to God asking God for what you asked the Saint to intercede on your behalf to God for.
Why the icons/statues/etc? They are to be reminders of the life of that person, to help you focus yourself on their attributes that took them to Heaven. They are not “idolized”, prayed to, etc. They are a focus of our memory to remind us what we should be doing!
Why pick “Patron Saints”? The Patron Saint(s) you select should have the attributes that you are lacking and want to have in your life. These may change as you grow in Christ and in life. They don’t always have to remain the same as you change. So, if you see a statue or other representation of a Saint at a friends house, it means, or should mean, that person is wishing to emulate and learn, or has learned from that person’s life.
Now, this all said, SOME Catholics are not fully aware of what the Saints are, and how the interaction with them is best suited, per the Church. We are all human, and not all have been educated in the ways of the Church, as many Protestants or other faith systems, have not been fully indoctrinated in their system. SOME people MAY pray to a Saint INSTEAD of God, or leave out the prayers to God asking for what they are “praying to the Saints” for. This is NOT the standard of the Church though! It is NOT the main way the majority of the Catholic faithful use the Saints either. The vast majority of the Catholic faith actually follow the guidelines and teachings of the Church!