We’re all called to sainthood—or to try for it, anyway! Scripture and the Church both make that clear: we’re all called to seek holiness and sainthood, whatever our state in life. The Church expresses this Universal Call to Holiness over and over again, most recently in Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate. The vocation, the calling, to holiness is universal; God is speaking to all Christians when he says, “Be holy because I [am] holy” (1 Pt 1:14-16).
So we have to start by understanding that the Church doesn’t create saints: all it’s doing is recognizing someone in heaven who is worth imitating to such an extent that they’re held up to be an example to the faithful.
As we approach the canonization of two new saints—Saint Oscar Romero and Saint Pope Paul VI—on Sunday, it’s worth looking at the process the Church employs to determine official sainthood.
Paths by which a person can be declared a saint
Until recently the Catholic Church has recognized three paths by which a person can be declared a saint: martyrdom, living the virtues of Christian life to a heroic degree, and “exceptional cases” known as “equipollent” or “equivalent canonization,” based on the confirmation of an ancient tradition of veneration of the saintliness of a person.
Last year, Pope Francis recognized a fourth path to sainthood in the apostolic letter “Greater Love Than This, On the Offering of Life.” (The Latin title is “Lettera Apostolicae Motu Proprio Datae De Oblatione Vitae.”) In this apostolic letter he has opened the way to declare as saints those who, following in the footsteps and teachings of Jesus, freely choose to give their lives for others in situations that they know will lead to their certain death. He writes: “It is certain that this heroic offering of life, suggested and sustained by charity, expresses a true, full and exemplary imitation of Christ and, therefore, is worthy of that admiration which the community of the faithful have usually reserved for those who have voluntarily accepted the martyrdom of blood or have exercised the Christian virtues to a heroic degree.”
Five steps in the process of being recognized as a saint in the Catholic Church
- The local bishop investigates the person’s life: he interviews (if possible) witnesses to their life and reads anything the candidate has written. If the bishop finds them worthy of being declared a saint, he then submits that information to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints. This generally cannot happen until at least five years after the candidate’s death. In the case of Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II waived the requirement of waiting five years after a person's death to pursue the path to sainthood and opened Mother Teresa's Cause of Canonization less than two years after her death.
- Next, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints will either accept or reject the application; if it’s accepted, then they begin a second investigation. At this point, the candidate is given a title: Servant of God.
- Should the Congregation approve the candidate, they can choose to declare that the candidate pursued holiness while on earth; the candidate may then be called Venerable.
- To demonstrate the fact that the candidate is indeed in heaven, a miracle must be attributed to them (this is generally in the form of an instantaneous, permanent and otherwise inexplicable healing). Miracles must be verified as scientifically unexplainable by doctors, theologians, and finally the pope. The candidate is then called Blessed.
- A second miracle is needed in order to declare the candidate a saint; this can be waived (as in the case of Archbishop Romero) when the person died a martyr. The confirmation of a second miracle goes through the same scrutiny as the first.
Why the waiting period?
The process to make someone a saint cannot normally start until at least five years after their death. This is to allow time for emotions following the death to calm down and to ensure that the individual's case can be evaluated objectively.
Some candidates wait a long time before they become an official Catholic saint. Saint Bede the theologian died in 735—but he wasn’t declared a saint until 1,164 years later! Saint John Paul II, on the other hand, died in 2005 and was canonized on April 27, 2014.
How does it happen?
The proclamation of a new saint or saints takes place within the setting of the celebration of the Eucharist, the center of Christian life. The rite begins with prayers and hymns, then moves to chanting of the Litany of Saints, the long and beautiful roll call of the Church’s saints: each name is recited, followed by the refrain “Ora pro nobis.” The prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints then makes three petitions to the pope to proclaim the blessed or blesseds among the saints.
The pope responds to the three petitions by pronouncing the canonization formula that officially declares the new saints. It’s an irrevocable decree prescribing universal veneration and removes all doubt about the validity of honoring the saints. At this point the new saints’ relics are brought forward, incensed, and presented to the faithful for veneration.
The presentation of the relics is the last part of the canonization rite. The prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints thanks the pope and asks that an apostolic letter be drawn up. The pope responds, “decernimus.” The canonization rite ends with the singing of the Gloria, and then the Mass moves forward as usual.
What do the saints have to do with me?
Because the Church is confident that these “holy ones” are now in heaven, Catholics are urged not only to imitate their holiness, but also to ask for their assistance.
Scripture tells us, “The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful” (Jas 5:16). If that’s true of righteous people still on earth, think how powerful and effective the prayer of the saints in heaven—perfected in righteousness—can be!
by Jeannette de Beauvoir