The Creation of New Saints

This leads us to the question of the creation of new saints. From the tenth century onwards, in the Latin context, the universal veneration of new saints had to be confirmed by papal processes. In modern times, this procedure was also expanded to the Oriental Catholic Churches. Also, some Orthodox Churches developed more formalized procedures for approving new saints, although none adopted in full the specific Roman procedure. In the twentieth century both Indian jurisdictions of the Syrian Orthodox Church recognized Mar Gregorios Geevarghese (d. 1902) as their indigenous saint. A new Syrian Orthodox saint generally accepted by his Church is Patriarch Elias III, who was canonized in 1982, fifty years after his death in India.

The traditional way of granting a holy man or woman afterlife in the veneration of Christian saints was the establishment of a cult and the composition of a vita. If a name also made its way into a martyrologion or heterologion there was a good chance that it would receive favourable and long-lasting reception. The earliest known source of this kind, the so-called Breviarium or Martyrologium Syriacum, is the Syriac translation of a Greek collection from Nicomedia which can be dated precisely to 362. The Syriac text was composed in Edessa in 411. The earlier a name entered such a collection the greater the chance of its wider dissemination. As far as later collections are concerned, they often never won more than local and limited significance.

Normally, a new cult had to be approved at least by the local bishop or an abbot. In some cases it appears that the bishop or abbot himself was instrumental in initiating a cult. In other cases, popular veneration could force the hierarchy to react. Sometimes an emerging cult can be traced back as far as a saint's own lifetime or to his or her death, but in such cases historical accuracy and initial hagiographic styling cannot be easily separated. In other cases, it is even more difficult to reconstruct the point when a cult of veneration began. Thus, quite a number of saints whose lives and deaths are set in the early Christian period are purely legendary figures. Their vitae and passions might have been woven around historical names, and there may even have been some oral traditions before hagiographic writings formed the image of an ancient hero. The construction of sanctuaries might be linked to some local knowledge about burials. But in several cases such traces are very faint and the scholarly community has not reached a consensus on their evaluation. Some cults did not start until someone affirmed that he or she had experienced supernatural phenomena, such as miracles or visions, which led to the 'discovery' of relics of a person who had long been dead.

It was in any case a good step to produce a vita or passion in order to promote a cult and to keep a saint's memory alive for the future. As far as most of the new medieval saints were concerned, local cults and the restricted circulation of their vitae were the only medium. In the East Syrian liturgical tradition in particular a comparatively small number of saints, most of them from the early Christian period, are honoured by individual liturgical commemoration and commonly celebrated feasts. But also in the other Syrian Churches, the number of saints who are generally commemorated is quite restricted today. Thus, those traditions which are easily accessible from modern church calendars cover only a very small field. To have a full picture of Syrian cults and hagi-ographic writings, it would be necessary to include a broad historical overview including various local traditions from the past and the present. This remains a challenge for future scholarship.

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