The process of becoming a saint has evolved over the thousands of years the Church has existed. Ever wonder how canonization happens? Read on!
Why Canonize in the First Place?
The purpose of canonizing saints is to recognize that the person is in heaven. It doesn’t mean the Church suddenly allows the person to be in heaven with God, but instead, they affirm that they actually are there. Also, by canonizing someone, the person becomes an example and a witness for Christ and the Church.
The Old Way
In the beginning of the Church, there seemed to be no formal process, but when holy people died (most of them martyred), many honored them on the day of their death (feast days) and venerated their relics. Many assumed that the holy person was in heaven so the formal process didn’t seem necessary. However, when more people who were not martyrs died, there needed to be a distinction (this is where we get language like, “confessor”, “virgin”, and “widow” that describe saints). In the Middle Ages, some submitted a “case” for canonization that included miraculous healings.
In the 12th century, Pope Alexander III ordered that people could not venerate a certain Swedish Monk without consent of the Pope. This established a Papal authority for declaring saints. Also in the 12th Century, Pope Innocent III declared that both miracles and a righteous life were necessary for canonization. In 1234, Pope Gregory IX formalized the process and in 1588, Pope Sixtus V formed a congregation of the Roman Curia that was later called the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The Congregation oversees the process.
Under the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the Church required six miracles (dang!). For martyrs it was a bit different, but verification and sometimes miracles were still required. Throughout the 20th century, this process became sort of muddled. Today one miracle is required for beatification and one for canonization. However, martyrs are beatified without a miracle and are canonized with one miracle (because, I mean, they gave their entire lives: that is pretty miraculous). The process to even get to venerable, then to beatified, and finally to canonized is lengthy and complex.
The process may seem daunting, but when you break it down, it is somewhat straightforward. Here are the steps:
- When a holy person dies, people petition the Bishop of the diocese where the person lived.
- The Bishop then opens the investigation and begins gathering witnesses of their life and the person’s writings. The Bishop then submits the case to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints if he believes the person worthy of sainthood.
- The Congregation decides whether to accept the case and they investigate the person to see if he/she had “heroic virtue”. If they accept the case, they call the person, Servant of God.
- During this investigation, the “general promoter of the faith”, known as the “devil’s advocate” challenges and raises any objections (this is where we get the term, yes!). Once the Congregation declares the heroic virtue of the person, the person is called Venerable.
- The Church then requires the first miracle (unless the person was a martyr because they can be beatified without that). The miracle is usually healing, but must show that it was performed by God and through the intercession of the saint. There is a theological investigation and a scientific investigation to prove that the miracle was inexplicable and instantaneous. Once it is verified, the Pope must approve. If he does, the person is called Blessed.
- Once beatified, certain people ask for intercession, like those in the same diocese, country, family, religious order, etc.
- The Church then requires the second miracle. The same process takes place, as with the first miracle.
- The Pope then approves and canonizes the person. The person is now Saint.
Why This Process Matters
This process is extensive but through it, the Church has confidence in the prayers of a Saint and his/her close relationship with God. This person stands as a model and guide for the Church on earth, and takes the requests of us to God. How awesome is that?
For More Info
The Seton Shrine in Emmitsburg, MD, where St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s relics remain, has produced an excellent video explaining how canonization happens using Betty Bayley (Mother Seton’s nickname and maiden name). FOCUS also has a quick and snappy article on canonization and you can look up the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints to see what’s in process.
In the meantime, visit our website, maybe to find someone newly canonized, and be friends with saints.