You are on your way to becoming a Catholic. Anyone in a state of Grace, is a Saint. Once you find out what the Catholic Church actually teaches, rather than what you’ve been told it holds, you will find yourself more Catholic than you think.
Catholics also agree that anyone in heaven is a saint. But the Church has a system to recognize people of exceptional virtue whom we can say, with a high degree of confidence, are actually in heaven (and thus can offer prayers for us while standing before the very throne of God).
In the early Church, saints were thus recognized by local Bishops. There were no criteria, and no idea of a “universally recognized” saint - each Diocese had its own list of saints. In fact, back then, the Church taught in parables about figures such as St. Christopher, and the figures of these parables could be recognized as a saint, even though they were not actual people (and everyone knew they were not actual people).
The modern concept of canonization began in 933 AD, with the various criteria (including that the person had to actually exist) that we have today. The saints of antiquity were largely “grandfathered in” under the new system.
There is a difference between “saints”, and “Saints”, kind of like “Catholic” vs. “catholic.”
We capitalize the first letter to designate a specific saint, to distinguish from the broader use of the word–just as we capitalize “C” in ‘catholic’, to distinguish the one, true, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church that Christ founded, from the more generic meaning of simply ‘universal’.
So, with ‘saints’, when we capitalize it, we are referring to a specific saint, or those whom have been officially declared to be among the Communion of Saints, in Heaven (upon a very high degree of confidence, anyway) based on how they lived their lives, what they stood for, and their ‘legacy’, vis a vis the Church–to distinguish from the larger body of saints, whose identities are largely/mostly unknown.
But because of the prestige of the formal recognition of sainthood, as it is reserved for folks who actually earned* the titular–that is, they established a significant amount/degree of ‘cred’ amongst most Christians–we don’t throw the term around lightly (as our separated brethren seem to)–so as not to cheapen its meaning.
For e.g.–we’re all pretty sure that “St. Paul”, is a ***S***aint. Ditto St. Francis of Assisi, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Joseph, St. John the Evangelist, St. John the Baptist, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Dominic, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Theresa of Calcutta, Pope John Paul II, the Great…
…but we’re not so sure about say, Pope Paul VI, Pope Benedict XVI (not knocking him at all, just say’n), late Bishop Fulton Sheen, Bishop Timothy Dolan, Carl Anderson (Supreme Knight if the Knights of Columbus, since 2000), John F. Kennedy, inter alia.
Point being, if that latter group (a formidable group) doesn’t fit the bill, then you can see how stringent the standard is, for such a declaration to issue–and how odd it would be, to go around declaring so many ordinary people, who have not been subjected to any real scrutiny, as ‘saints’–especially without allowing for a wayward turn to sin (it does happen from time to time, even among great and pious people).
Bottom line–Sainthood to us, is something beautiful, to which we aspire–the pinnacle of our Christianity–not something assumed, based solely on our Christianity, or our intent, vis a vis Christianity.
NOTE: by ‘earned’, I am referring to the general recognition, not the sainthood itself, as that is a matter of grace, not merit–lest you be confused by another common protestant misunderstanding of Catholicism.
Anyway, just adding on, when St. Paul, in his epistles (sorry, forget where) called those he is addressing as “saints”- I think his intention was in calling them “saints” was so that they would begin to live as the “Saints” in heaven, ie, to live a very holy and sanctified life.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.