medals saint
st monica, st joan of arc, st thomas moore, st bernadette

A Saint Medal,

to devout Catholics, is like a photograph of a beloved friend or relative, a reminder of someone we love and know loves us. We finger these medals in much the same way as we touch the frame of a portrait, as a sign of affection or devotion to the person portrayed. Those cherished photographs are as unique as the people they represent. If we could peek into people’s wallets, we would see a diverse collection of characters smiling out from the pictures: camera shy children, busy working mothers, and confidant businessmen to name a few. The holy people depicted in saint medals are just as varied as the people we have known and loved in life. There is Saint Monica, the patient mother, St. Joan of Arc, the soldier, St. Thomas Moore, the lawyer, St. Bernadette, the visionary child. Each is so unique there does not fail to be one we can identify with or admire, seeking to emulate their virtues. In fact, during two of the Catholic Church’s seven sacraments, Baptism and Confirmation, the candidate takes a saint’s name after which to model him or herself. When we are baptized, our parents choose the name for us. When we join the Church of our own accord in Confirmation, we can adopt another saint’s name, one whose life or virtues we wish to imitate. It is during one of these two celebrations that we Catholics often receive our first saint medal, a gift to commemorate our naming.

saint medals

Devotional medals,

of which saint medals are one example, have a long religious history that, in fact, precedes the birth of the Catholic Church. The practice of wearing saint medals probably had its origins in Greece and Rome, where it is known citizens would wear amulets honoring their various gods around their necks. It seems that early Catholics adopted this practice, changing it so that the medals worn would honor Christian martyrs. Certain coin-like objects have been found in the catacombs, attesting to this practice. Also, a second century medal with Peter and Paul’s heads cast on one side of it was excavated in Italy in modern times. The wearing of saint medals is unexplainably absent during the Middle Ages, not to be seen again until the 12th century when different Catholic shrines began manufacturing their own medals out of lead to be given as souvenirs of a pilgrim’s visit. These medals were worn upon the hat or chest and their use continued until the 16th or 17th century when they were replaced by more artistic medals done in bronze or silver.

religious medals
patron saint medals

saint medal

Wearing a saint’s medal

is a way of honoring that person who has died. Catholics inherited the custom of honoring the dead from the Jewish tradition of building shrines to honor prophets and other holy people. The first Catholics who were permitted to build churches, named them after apostles and martyrs, a practice that continues in our time. Unlike the Jews, however, Catholics honor their most holy people with portraits and statues as well.

saint medals

saint medals

Another precursor of wearing saint medals

is the reverence shown saints’ and martyrs’ relics. Catholics believed that touching a bone or piece of clothing that had been worn by a holy person carried the same strength as touching the saint himself. The relic could bring about healings or answer prayers. There is evidence of even the earliest Christians wearing relics or little crosses around their necks. Unfortunately the strong belief in the power of relics gave rise to the abuse of the collection and reverencing of them. False relics were bought and sold and churches tried to outdo each other in the amount of saints’ relics they possessed. Letters from the early Church that survive today admonish Christians against these derelict practices.


patron saint medals
st joseph

Saint medals today

are perhaps more beautiful and available than they have ever been. Every Christian, if they so desire, can wear a reminder of their favorite saint against his or her heart. Often the name has a two-fold meaning; it is the name of a favorite relative as well as that of a saint. Sometimes a saint is favored and their medal worn because of their career or interests in life. A carpenter, for instance, might choose to wear a St. Joseph medal, a lawyer a St. Thomas medal. There is a saint for every career and interest people have.

st joseph

A candidate for sainthood

is usually brought to the attention of Church authorities by a group of ordinary Catholics who know of a person who has lived an extraordinarily holy life and wish to honor them. “Saints” was originally a more universal term used to refer to the members of the Christian communities of the early Church. As time passed it was used only in reference to people believed to be holy, like monks or Church officials. Today calling a person a saint means one of three things: he lives or had lived a holy life; he has gone to heaven, or he has been judged to be in heaven by the Church and so canonized.

devotional medals
communion of saints

baptism gift

The canonization

process was redefined by Pope John Paul II in 1983. The first step is the declaration of the proposed person as venerable. The second, after the legitimization of one miracle, is naming the person “Blessed,” and the third, requiring a second proven miracle, is sainthood. The sainted person is honored and prayed with by the entire Church. We believe God has shown us that they are indeed in heaven, and that because of our belief in the Communion of Saints, we can ask for their help in praying to God.

So, we wear Saint medals

around our necks or pinned to our shirts, in the same way we might wear a locket. Each carries a picture of a beloved person, reminding us of him or her, and that there are people to whom we can aspire. Saints are testaments to the good in people, something that we can have trouble seeing in an often baffling world. When we wear their medals we give testimony to their holy lives and remember that we too can be holy.

“Sainthood, Its Manifestations in World Religions.” Ed. Richard Kieckhefer and George D. Bond. University of California Press, 1988.

“Martyrs and Miracles, The Inspiring Lives of Saints and Martyrs.” Carolyn Trickey-Bapty. Ottenheimer Publishers, Inc. 1996

“Catholic Online, Saints and Angels.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. X. Robert Appleton Company, 1910. Online Edition,
K. Knight, 2003.
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