Who Are All Those Saints in the Roman Canon?

In union with the whole Church we honor Mary, Joseph, the apostles and martyrs and all the saints.

‘Virgin and Child, Prophets, Apostles and Saints,’ 14th century, Venice
‘Virgin and Child, Prophets, Apostles and Saints,’ 14th century, Venice (photo: via Wikimedia Commons)

There’s really no middle ground on this one: you either love the Roman Canon of the Mass (“Eucharistic Prayer I”), all “This-is-how-a-Mass-should-be,” or you can almost hear the audible groan of “Oh-no-now-this-Mass-is-going-to-last-forever” from those who long for the shorter Eucharistic Prayer II.

I fall into the former camp, but for a very specific reason: I simply love listening to the two lists of saints contained in the Canon.

True, most of the saints listed before and after the “Mystery of Faith” are in square brackets, meaning they may be omitted—but rare is the priest who, if he’s going the route of the Roman Canon at all, is about to excise the 42 saints set off in those brackets.

But who are these saints?

The first group of 24 contains—and in fact begins with (excepting the introduction of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph), to absolutely no one’s surprise, all of the Apostles—excepting Matthias, Barnabas (who appear later) and, of course, Judas Iscariot.

But after the Twelve Apostles we then run into a buzz saw of names that may be unfamiliar to many, to wit:

Linus: The second pope after St. Peter (whose name appears right after St. Joseph in the Canon), of whom we know very little. His pontificate lasted either from 64-67 or possibly 76-79.

Cletus: Like Linus, an early pope—the third including St. Peter. Often conflated in early lists with “Anacletus.” Cletus possibly reigned from 76-88, but the historical information on dates of what was essentially an underground Church at this time are sketchy.

Clement: According to tradition, Clement was ordained by St. Peter himself, and became the Supreme Pontiff after Cletus. (Here we can see the pattern in the Roman Canon: first, the parents of Jesus; then his Apostles; next his popes.) The only thing we know for certain about Clement is that, like all three of his predecessors, he died a martyr’s death.

Sixtus: The first pope of this name (surprisingly five others would take this name, including the patron of, to no one’s surprise, the “Sistine” Chapel), and another early martyr. Or, alternately, the second pope of that name: regardless, we are still commemorating early pope-martyrs in this section of the Canon.

Cornelius: A martyr-pope (died 253) who is commemorated in a Memorial on Sept. 16. An ardent defender not only of The Faith in general, but his own papal authority in particular. Always celebrated with…

Cyprian: Bishop of Carthage and martyr (died 258). Some of his letters and Acta are extant and used in the Divine Office and make for edifying reading. Born a pagan but converted to Christianity, laid the ground in Carthage for the great Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine. The first saint in the canon who is not an Apostle or Pope or, naturally, part of Jesus’ nuclear family.

Lawrence: No introduction needed here. After Sts. Peter and Paul, the patron saint of early Rome and one of the most famous saints of all time. Roasted to death on a gridiron, he’s the first deacon mentioned in the Canon.

Chrysogonus: Who? A very early martyr who appears to have been a layman and a catechist. Like Lawrence, hugely important to the nascent Church in Rome and a martyr, having been thrown into the sea after decapitation.

John and Paul: Not a repetition of the Apostles, St. John the “Beloved Disciple” and “The Apostle to the Gentiles,” but brothers in the service of the Roman Empire as officers. They were martyred during the reign of Julian the Apostate in 362.

Cosmas and Damian: Another pair of brothers and martyrs, and known as “the moneyless ones” for their refusal to take a fee for their medical practices. (They are the patrons of doctors, nurses, surgeons, dentists, and, inexplicably, confectioners). Arguably the first pair of martyr-saints whose rather slim historical information rapidly spread into a full-blown cult in the both the West AND the East, replete with churches and icons in their honor. Their date of martyrdom is circa 287.

So much for the first set of saints in the Roman Canon. The second grouping starts off with “the last of the Prophets,” St. John the Baptist, and continues with:

Stephen: The protomartyr and first of “The Seven Deacons” in the Acts of the Apostle whose death closely parallels that of Our Lord.

Matthias: The man chosen to replace Judas Iscariot (also from Acts).

Barnabas: Always considered and celebrated as an Apostle (though not as “one of the Twelve”) and the last name mentioned in Holy Scripture to appear in the Canon.

Ignatius [of Antioch]: With this great saint, we enter into the post-apostolic age and into the patristic one. Said to have been a disciple of St. John the Apostle, he is the bridge between the last of the Apostles and the greater emergence of the Church Suffering—in this case under the Emperor Trajan. A friend and mentor to St. Polycarp, many of his writings, mainly letters to the Churches, have survived. Martyred in Rome by lions. Prestige point: said by some to have been the “child Jesus placed in their midst” (Matthew 18: 2)

Alexander: Like Ignatius, an early Eastern Bishop, in this case of Alexandria. (He was the immediate predecessor of St. Athanasius). He brought the Arian heresy—and Arius himself—to heel. The first non-martyr to appear in the Canon (pace St. Joseph: Mary, we learn from St. Bernard, was a “Martyr in spirit”).

Marcellinus: Like John and Paul, and Cosmas and Damian, Marcellinus was part of a pair of early Church martyr-saints. Marcellinus was a priest and was beheaded in 302 with…

Peter: An exorcist and friend and confidant of St. Marcellinus. This Saint Peter is apparently the first and only saint in the Canon who was only in “minor orders.”

Felicity: Another half of a pair of martyrs—and the first woman to the appear in the Canon after the Blessed Virgin Mary—Felicity was a pregnant slave-girl who was thrown to the lions and then dispatched by the sword in 202 along with…

Perpetua: A noble woman of high rank in Carthage who would not go back on her faith, she shows, with St. Felicity, that any person, whether of high or low estate, male or female, can win the martyr’s crown.

Agatha: A Sicilian noble, Agatha, according to the official martyrology, “after beatings and imprisonment, racking, the twisting of her limbs, the cutting off of her breasts, and torture by being rolled upon shards and burning coals, at last died while in prayer to God.” According to tradition, it took two attempts to kill her (like St. Cecilia below, and St. Sebastian whose name does not appear) since St. Peter himself healed her in a vision. The year was 254.

Lucy: You’ve seen her famous statue: she with the chalice with two eyeballs in it. Like saint Agatha, she was of Sicilian nobility. Her name meaning “light” despite the fact that she’d been blinded, pulled by oxen, covered in pitch and resin and boiling oil, and finally had her throat slit under the emperor Diocletian’s persecution. Another famous female martyr of the early Church.

Agnes: Of all the women martyrs, perhaps the most famous, and certainly the youngest (about 12 years of age), her name means “lamb,” though she had the heart and faith of a lion. Along with Lawrence, one of the most famous early Roman saints and, in the words of the great Doctor of the Church St. Jerome, “Agnes is praised in the literature and speech of all peoples, especially in the Churches, she who overcame both her age and the tyrant, and consecrated by her martyrdom to chastity.” John Keats’s famous poem “The Eve of Saint Agnes” shows just how right St. Jerome was.

Cecilia: Patron saint of musicians, and usually shown with at a keyboard, her passion is so well-known that it would be unjust to list a truncated version of it here. Though the date of her martyrdom is unknown (as is much of the history surrounding her), it is thought to have occurred in Rome in the early part of the fourth century.

Anastasia: Her commemoration falls on Christmas Day, which shows the regard in which her cult was held. Along with her husband Publius she was tortured and eventually killed with 270 other men and women. Like St. Cecilia, it’s difficult to determine fact from legend in Anastasia’s life and death, but she seems to have been martyred about 304.

Perhaps the next time a priest wisely decides to invoke the Roman Canon (which, after all, remained almost unchanged from the Council of Trent to the present day), the above reflections on the saints will help bring us into a deeper union, a further communion with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.