There are a number of dictionaries of saints presently on the market. Butler’s Lives of the Saints, a Herculean effort begun by Dom Alban Butler in the late eighteenth century, has gone through recent editions, with updated entries that incorporate new saints canonized under Pope John Paul II together with those revisions made to the liturgical calendar. In the main the biographical entries of Butler’s Lives are substantive and well written. Among other reference works in English, one can still find the dictionaries edited by John Delaney, Richard McBrien, Donald Attwater, David Hugh Farmer, and Basil Watkins to be useful, each in their own way (mostly for quick reference), though few draw from the mother of all saints’ compendia, the multi-volume Bibliotheca Sanctorum, published in Italian by the Lateran University in the 1960s.
Walsh’s dictionary takes its inspiration from the Enciclopedia dei Santi, a more contemporary Italian work of the late 1990s. This colossal effort deals with the Eastern saints and Walsh makes great use of the entries in those volumes for his own. Thus when he claims that his dictionary stands apart from his competitors on the ground of comprehensiveness, he means that others make little or no effort to see the Church’s saints as a unified communion. His does. While Walsh does little more than to provide the bare bones facts on the biography and liturgical role of a particular saint, he stretches the categories for inclusion to those saints and blesseds revered by Christians such as Old Believers, Melkites, Copts, Cypriots, Armenians, and so forth. He lists all those religious bodies in an appendix and provides a thumbnail sketch of their histories. A final one-page appendix (now outdated) includes a list of all the saints and beati proclaimed since Pope Benedict XVI took office.
Nearly 7000 names are listed alphabetically in this dictionary. Each entry presents a compact version of the saint’s life and so given the vast number, the reader should not expect embellishment. Indeed, one can easily tire of the sometimes wooden style for these entries, which are meant to be functional for the scholar or student in need of basic data. This is not always so, however, because, particularly with more famous saints, Walsh includes some distinction in the vitae. The length of each individual entry rarely goes past a half of a column in length (a rule inviolate even for St. Francis of Assisi or St. Ignatius of Loyola). The volume has the merit of easy cross-referencing through the inclusion of names in bold print, such as when the entry for Helen also refers the reader to Constantine.
Notwithstanding the publisher’s assertion that this is “the most complete and accurate ‘Dictionary of Saints’ available,” there is a glaring omission in that no entry for St. Peter the Apostle can be found, even though many other entries (such as that for Sts. Andrew or Paul) have a note to “See Peter.” These entries direct the reader to nowhere. There are, however, 123 other entries under the name “Peter,” such as “Peter Faber” or “Peter Damian,” or “Peter Claver.” It is also somewhat hit or miss to find the feast day listed in these entries. The year, but not the precise date of canonization, is usually supplied for those saints in the second millennia. It could have been helpful to include a brief explanation about the nature and development of canonization processes somewhere in the introductory material in order to clarify why canonization dates only emerge in the second millennia (papal bulls canonizing a saint only begin with St. Homobonus of Cremona in 1199). There is also periodic, but hardly uniform, reference to the patronage of individual saints. One also searches mightily for their symbols as they appear in Christian art. But for these complaints, this dictionary endeavors to supply a ready reference, an aid to further scholarship.