Let’s first begin by re-phrasing the question: How many holy men and woman are recognized by the Catholic Church as saints? Because the answer to the first cannot really be known—the Catholic Church makes no claims that its list of saints is an exhaustive one. Certainly, there are numerous holy men and women who were, or rather are, saints, but whose status as such is not known, or, at least, not known now.
But there is no easy answer to the second question either.
Turning to Google—the obvious starting point for such an inquiry in the digital age—you’ll find an independent Catholic media site, http://saints.sqpn.com, which puts the total at 8,050. But that tally includes saints as well as blesseds and venerables and excludes servants of God, so it’s not very helpful. Plus the site does not explain how it calculated that number. (My e-mail inquiry to the author asking for documentation of how he arrived at his count never received a response.) Another Catholic outlet, St. Anthony Messenger, raises the question, but ultimately concludes there is no answer.
The first comprehensive listing which I have been able to uncover is a seventeenth century publication known as the Acta Sanctorum, or Acts of the Saints, which originated in Belgium and is affiliated with the Jesuits. So far, I have yet to see a count though.
Next, there Butler’s Lives of the Saints marked 1,486 entries when it was first published in the 1750s (and cited in St. Anthony Messenger). More recently, the Oxford Dictionary of Saints currently has 1,700 entries, but this is not necessarily limited to saints proper or to saints recognized in the Catholic Church, as opposed to saints in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Furthermore, none of these is an authoritative Church document, so take them with a grain of salt.
So we turn elsewhere, to official Church sources.
And we immediately run into a big problem. In the first eight or nine centuries, there was no centralized process for canonization of a saint. Instead, sainthood depended upon popular affirmation or “spontaneous local attribution.” It wasn’t until 993 that a pope canonized the first saint. And it wasn’t until about six hundred years later that the process was truly centralized into a formal process, when Pope Sixtus V established the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in 1588.
In 1988, the Congregation published the Index ac status Causarum, an authoritative listing of all saints recognized as such in its 400 years of operation. The total: 285. (Good luck finding this document online and if you do, you need to know Latin.)
That excludes any canonizations under Pope John Paul II.
So now, we must find how many total canonizations there were under John Paul II and how many to date under Benedict XVI. My above source for the count in the Index ac status Causarum is from a USCCB document which is dated around 2000, so we must look elsewhere for the total count for John Paul II.
For John Paul II the total, courtesy of EWTN, is 480.
For Pope Benedict XVI the tally, as of this month, is: 45. (According to this Catholic reference site. The ones this month were announced on October 21.)
THE GRAND TOTAL: 810.*
*Now, that’s an ‘at least’ number, but at least it’s something you can hang your hat on.
Some may wish to add the number canonized by popes since the first papal canonization in 993. That would bring the total to: 921. (Source here.) That’s only a probable total, since some are disputed.
Beyond that, things get murkier.
NOTE TO READERS: This is a first installment of a four-part series on saints basics, or “Saints 101” to commemorate All Saints Day.
Coming up next: What is the process for canonization?