Especially since Pope John Paul II went on a veritable spree of canonizations, including a number of Maronites, the fact that the Orthodox seemingly have so few saints is often the topic of village polemic in the Middle East, so the scenario at the beginning is quite realistic, even if it's folksy....
The Arabic original, by Mazen Abboud in this past Monday's an-Nahar, can be found here.
Announcing Sainthood in the Orthodox Church
Rose said to her neighbor Leila, "What's wrong with you Rum that your church doesn't produce saints? Have Jesus son of Joseph the Carpenter and His mother Mary left your church? The church that doesn't produce saints is barren, according to my father. Look how we have celebrations of beatifications and canonizations come every year. Convert, or at least break off your poision like the Greek Catholics so that heaven will grant you at least the idea of a saint!"
Leila got angry with Rose and war broke out between the two using all the water buckets and old pots available... The struggle almost turned into sectarian strife, even if it didn't reach the police office. Leila took her neighbor's comments to the archimandrite of her village, hoping he would explain about the announcement of saints and this apparent infertility in the Orthodox Church.
The embarrassed Orthodox woman went inside the monastery gate and solemnly entered the church. She followed the service of vespers until its end in order to meet the archimandrite who was praying inside the altar.
The service soon ended and the simandron sounded and everyone went to the monastery's reception hall. Leila quickly asked the monastery's elder the question that had been troubling her. The priest explained to her in simple terms the substance of the standards for glorifying a saint in the Orthodox Church and it heartened her to hear that the Antiochian Orthodox Church has recently announced the sanctity of a number or martyrs, such as Joseph of Damascus who was martyred defending his faith at the end of the nineteenth century and the martyrs of Hamatoura who were also martyred defending their religion in the time of the Mamluks. He informed her that the ways of declaring a saint are different between different churches, such as publishing reports of miracles. However, she was surprised to hear him say that there are saints whose sanctity is still hidden, undiscovered and unannounced. Here is some of what she heard about this....
The model of the martyrs for Christ is the original path of sanctity in the universal Church and the Deacon Stephen was the first of them. According to the universal Church they purchased paradise with their blood. Through this they joined the choirs of the angels, the apostles, and the prophets. The first Christians had the custom of erecting the altars of the churches upon the graves of their martyrs. With the end of persecution, that is after the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity, confessors like Ephrem the Syrian and some of the monks of the desert of Egypt were added to the list of saints.
Likewise the ancient custom in the Church was for the sanctity of someone departed tobe declared by one of the successors of the apostles, that is the local bishops and the heads of local churches, until Pope Alexander III proclaimed in 1170 that all questions of veneration and beatification and announcements of sainthood in the Catholic Church would belong to the Vatican.
The Pope at that time was focused on emphasizing his role in making decisions on account of the reality of abuses by certain hierarchs of the authority granted to them in such matters, as well as political and administrative circumstances that led to the strengthening of the pope’s power over authorities in the Catholic Church and their flocks. The issue of announcing sainthood was gradually regularized until it became mandatory for the person seeking veneration to make an appeal for beatification before the council for saints in the Vatican, which has the competency to study the dossier before raising the subject before the Pontiff, as the basis for the final decision about announcing sainthood.
It is clear that the means of declaring sainthood in the Vatican obey intellectual and canonical standards and expend a great deal of effort and money. The custom arose for every appeal to have an advocate. Before 1983, each appeal had a defense attorney as well, who rebutted the claims made before the council. This required convincing the fathers of the truth of the matter in declaring sainthood. After listening to the rebuttals and the rebuttals of the rebuttals, the fathers of the council vote on the matter, and report the results of the vote to the Pontiff to serve as the basis for declaring sainthood, which takes place in a celebration at St. Peter’s Cathedral.
It should be pointed out that Udalric, Bishop of Augsburg was the first saint (outside Rome) whose sainthood was announced by Pope John XV in the year 993. Likewise, Gautier du Pontoise, was the last western saint whose sainthood was announced by a bishop (Hugh du Boves, Archbishop of Rouen) in the year 1153.
The standards for Sainthood in the Orthodox Church
The Eastern Church is distinct from the Western Church in the ways that she understands sainthood and announcing it, to a great degree, is not an essential part of the question.
Saint Symeon, called the New Theologian, talks about new saints in the Orthodox Church and says, "The new saint in the Church belongs to the congregation of the saints across history who in their own way have been filled with divine light. All of them make up a golden chain, each saint forming a link that connects to the others through faith and work and love. Yes, the saints in our Church form a chain of faith that is never broken.”
As for the definition of saint in the Church, Archimandrite Touma Bitar defines the announcement of sainthood in the Orthodox Church in the following way: “The saint is the one who becomes, in Spirit and in truth, a temple for God. He becomes a vessel for the godhead. He becomes an icon of God... a living Gospel. His life is a word and his story is a model. For this reason he is an intercessor before God who raises prayer up on behalf of the faithful in the Church.”
As for the philosophy of announcing sainthood among the Orthodox, on the topic of the Orthodox Church and announcement of sainthood, the writer Brother Alex Yang reports about Saint John Maximovitch that he said that the sainthood of one who has reposed in the Church does not come from the admission of religious authorities, but from the grace of God. The concern of the authorities in the Church for the Orthodox in the matter of declaring saints is limited to discovering and honoring those whom God has sanctified from among His flock.
The Orthodox Church distinguishes between sainthood, its discovery, and its announcement. She holds that in the Church there are saints who are still undiscovered by the Church on this earth, though they live in the presence of their Lord with all the saints and angels and intercede for us before Him. The announcement of sainthood for the Orthodox begins on an individual basis. That is, when an individual within the Church starts to ask the intercession of someone who is departed and is considered to be close to God.
As for the method of announcing sainthood among the Orthodox: Archimandrite Bitar says about the announcement of sainthood among the Orthodox that whenever the Church notices the someone who has reposed was a person of Christ in Spirit and in truth, and that his life was distinguished by a number for Christian virtues (humility, prayer, poverty, love....), and that he is present in the consciousness of the faithful as a model and teacher and intercessor, then the Church undertakes a study of the possibility of honoring him. However, according to the Orthodox tradition, the Holy Spirit sometimes decides to work miracles (such as healings, apparitions, bodily incorruptibility, the flow of myrrh...) through a person, living or reposed. This is in order to confirm the presence of this person in the life of the Church and the fact of his having become a living icon. Miracles are not absolutely necessary in the Church to announce sainthood.
For the Orthodox, the announcement of sainthood is still not limited to a single authority under whose competency are the heads of the churches. As for the preparations that precede the announcement of sainthood, they are not subject to academic and canonical standards, but rather purely to standards of faith.
Archimandrite Bitar places the question of announcing sainthood in the Orthodox Church in the framework of the living, dynamic relationship between the local church and the saint. He considers the announcement of sainthood in his church to not be an academic matter, and not something that usually depends on the desire of the leaders and influential people to honor a specific personality as a saint, but rather on the desire of the people and the clergy. For this reason, the announcement of sainthood according to him must be accompanied by an abundance of prayer and fasting in the Church and must spring from the grace of God.
Even though the general principles for the announcement of sainthood are the same in the two churches, the difference is embodied in the practice and understanding of the announcement of sainthood. The Church's role for the Orthodox is limited to uncovering the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctifying one of the departed. For this reason, the methods followed in the Orthodox Church are simpler and less academic.
It is noted that the local saints whose sanctity has been announced by the Antiochian Orthodox Church of late have for the most part been martyrs who defended their belief and faith in a clear way, like for example Joseph of Damascus.
On the Announcement of Sainthood Among the Orthodox
Mother Maryam Zakka says about the celebration of the announcement of sainthood among the Orthodox that, "After a series of prayers and fasts and after consultation with the pillars of the Church among the spiritual fathers, monks, and laypeople known for their piety, and after establishing the life story of the one who has departed and their characteristics and their presence and impact upon the life of the gathering of the faithful (that is the Church), the Patriarch calls the Holy Synod to a session (on the basis of the request of at least one bishop) to study the dossier about the announcement of the sainthood of a given person. The Holy Synod makes its decision about this matter, and if they agree to it, then the Patriarch orders an iconographer to make an icon of the saint and permits one of the monasteries to write a special service for the saint.
On the evening of the commemoration of the repose of the new saint, a special vespers is held and the relics and icon of the saint are taken into the cathedral. The icon and the relics are carried during the service of breaking the bread around the altar of the church and are placed next to the iconostasis while the choir sings the troparion of the saint for the first time. The patriarch reveals the image and breaks the five loaves which are distributed to the people who come up to kiss the relics and the icon. The morning of the next day, the commemoration of the new saint is made for the first time in the divine liturgy, along with the other saints, as an intercessor before God for all the faithful. After celebrating the announcement, the Church permits the faithful to build new churches in the name of the new saint, just as she permits them to hang icons of the saint in their homes as a blessing. She asks for the saint’s intercession before God for the sake of the faithful as a whole in the churches.