So You Want to be a Saint: The Canonization Process
Growing up Protestant, I was taught that we are all called saints merely because of the power of the cross. As Catholics, we believe that this is half true. Yes, we are made perfect by the blood of Christ, but perfection, or sainthood, is a process and a journey. It is an “already, but not yet” situation. The author of Hebrews encourages Christians to strive for sainthood with the encouragement of the saints who have gone before them:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith...” (Heb. 12:1-2)
The canonization process may seem tedious and extensive, but it is designed to discover lives that are worth imitating by truly assessing a person’s life and virtues. The Catholic Church's seemingly long process is an advantage in canonization because of the importance of giving the Church worthy examples to follow. The process begins with a bishop nominating a holy person for beatification and asking the Diocesan Tribunal to assess that person’s life and virtues. The first title given to a potential saint is Servant of God.
Servant of God
The canonization process may begin at least five years after a person’s death. The task is to gather the writings and stories of the potential saint and send them to a group called the Diocesan Tribunal. This group looks at the person’s life and virtues and decides whether to send this person’s cause on to the second phase.
The second phase is when the Diocesan Tribunal sends the cause over the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. This group organizes and prepares the person’s life and virtues then cast votes on the cause. In order for it to be passed, there must be nihil obstat, “nothing that stands in the way”. If it is passed, the Decree of Heroic Virtues is given to the cause and the cause is passed on to the Holy Father.
An example of a Servant of God is Julia Greeley of Denver, Colorado. Julia is known as a zealous apostle of the Sacred Heart and a lover of the poor and children. She was born in slavery during the Civil War and was later freed. Living with a Catholic couple in Colorado, she was influenced by their Catholic faith and converted. She attended the Sacred Heart parish and was very active within and outside the church. The local community knew her presence well as she walked the streets and passed out Sacred Heart booklets, particularly to the firemen. She was a friend of the poor and often looked after babies of working women. Fittingly enough, she died on the feast day of the Sacred Heart.
Her canonization was initiated by Archbishop Samuel Aquila, and after sending her cause on to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, she was titled Servant of God on August 6, 2016. Julia is the first person to be buried at the Immaculate Conception Cathedral Basilica.
If the heroic virtues of a person have been recognized by the Pope, the person may then be called Venerable. The process then includes the search for one miracle and further investigation into the life and virtues of the person. The evidence for the miracle must be both scientific and theological. Generally, the kind of miracle approved is the curing of diseases without explanation. For the miracle to be approved, the intercession must be through the Venerable only, not also through other saints (i.e. Blessed Mother and St John Paul II).
After the Congregation has approved the miracle, it sends on the cause to the Holy Father for his approval.
An example of a Venerable is Fulton Sheen. He was a beloved preacher on television and radio who spread the Gospel and won many converts through the media. Some say he was the most influential Catholic in the 20th century! The secret to his prayer life was spending an hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament every day. He did not see this practice merely as a devotion but as a “sharing in the work of redemption”. On one of these daily visits with Jesus, he died right in front of the Blessed Sacrament.
His cause opened in 2002 and after a miracle survival birth, he was declared venerable in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI. A mother who had just given birth to a stillborn asked for Fulton Sheen’s intercession right after her husband baptized the child James Fulton. The child miraculously survived and the doctors could not explain how the child’s heart started beating an hour after his birth. His cause is close to canonization, but it is being delayed because of a disagreement between dioceses as you will see in the “remaining questions” section below.
The third phase of canonization happens after the Holy Father approves the Decree of a Miracle. When a person is declared Blessed, he or she may receive public veneration. This means that the clergy or delegated laity may venerate this person on behalf of the Church, but veneration cannot be done by individuals or groups yet.
The process then includes looking for a second miracle. If one occurs, it passes through different committees and finally to the Pope for approval.
An example of a Blessed is John Henry Newman. He was a convert from Anglicanism in the mid 19th century. He lived a faithful life as a priest, preacher, writer, and theologian. His love of the Church fathers inspired a widespread love of them. As a cardinal, his motto became “Cor ad cor loquitur”, or “heart speaks to heart”. He had a way of speaking to the people with love and conviction at the same time. The well-known Newman Centers on university campuses are named after him.
Pope Benedict XVI beatified Newman in 2010. Eight years later, in November 2018, a second miracle was approved by the Vatican. A pregnant woman had a life-threatening diagnosis, prayed for a miracle through Newman’s intercession, and was cured. The doctors could not explain how she was able to recover. His canonization is predicted to happen this spring of 2019! All that is needed are the approval by the commission of bishops and Pope Francis must declare him a saint.
Finally, the last step of the process to sainthood! At this point, the cause has gone through an assessment of life and virtues, two miracles have been approved by the Holy Father, and the last step is to have the Holy Father declare this person a saint. However, it is important to note that the Pope does not make anyone a saint; he merely declares that the person is with Jesus in Heaven and has lived a life worthy of imitating. Once the cause is completed, the person may now be universally venerated: by the clergy but also by individuals and groups.
An example is the beloved Pope John Paul II. Former Karol Wojtyla lived during the Second World War, during which he worked in a quarry and in a chemical factory. After attending seminary in Krakow, he was ordained a priest in 1946. He went on to study in Rome then returned to his homeland in Poland. His love for the young displayed itself as Wojtyla became a university chaplain, then a theology professor at the university. In 1958, he became an auxiliary bishop then the Archbishop of Krakow in 1964. He was a significant contributor to the ideas and implementation behind Vatican II and was elected Pope in 1978. He is known for his ardor for the faith, his love for outdoor adventures, and discipleship of the young amongst many other things.
After Pope John Paul II died in 2005, it quickly became apparent that his cause for canonization was a unique one because of his incredible holy life. Normally, there is a five-year wait after someone’s death to begin the process, but Pope Benedict XVI gave a dispensation so that his process could speed up. Cardinal Camillo Ruini started the process only three months after his death.
And there you have a quick overview of the canonization process in the Catholic Church. Below are some questions that may still be remaining about the process.
Why does the Congregation care so much about the potential saints’ bodies and where they are buried?
One reason is the theological thought behind the makeup of humans. The Catholic Church teaches that we are both body and soul, and both body and soul will be redeemed. The Catechism says, "The flesh is the hinge of salvation" (CCC, 1015). There is a reason that Christ came to earth in our own human form and died on the cross, suffering with His body. He came to restore our souls but also redeem our bodies. Our bodies are temples and we should honor them. The early churches used to be built over a martyred Christian or holy person, and it is still a tradition to have honored people buried in the crypt underneath the altar of a church.
Another reason is that it is required for the Diocese in charge of a saint’s cause for it to have the relics located in that Diocese in order to investigate further. There might be a chance that the body is “incorruptible”, a miraculous preservation of the body for the purpose of veneration. For example, the canonization process for Fulton Sheen has been delayed because of the disagreement over where his body should be buried. Bishop Jenky of the Diocese of Peoria, who is spearheading the investigation, stated that unless the body was moved to Peoria, the cause would not continue. However, it was found that Sheen’s desire was to be buried in New York, so the Bishop of New York refuses to move his remains. If Bishop Jenky’s wish is granted, they will exhume the body of Fulton Sheen and move him to Peoria to continue the process.
A third reason for the importance of the location of saints’ bodies is that knowing that a saint’s bones are near, inspires living Christians to also prepare their hearts and bodies for eternity.
How can we venerate saints?
Venerating saints is an ancient practice in the Catholic Church that is often misunderstood by other Christian churches. The key word is veneration as it is distinctly different from the word we use for worshiping the Holy Trinity. We give honor to holy people because they point us to Christ. Here is a list of ideas for how you can venerate your favorite saints today:
- pray a Novena to a saint for a particular cause
- light a candle at a saint’s altar in a church
- keep a holy card of a particular saint with you throughout your day
- wear a medal with an image of a saint around your neck
- display beautiful art around your house that depicts saints
How do the saints show their presence to us?
I will conclude with a personal story of how I have noticed a saint’s presence in my life. Recently, I have been asking the intercession of St. Jude for my family’s conversion. My parents are faithful Protestants, but I greatly desire them to know the truth, beauty, and goodness of the Catholic Church. And my brothers do not have strong religious beliefs at all. I have been praying and fasting for them intentionally for a couple of months, and then St. Jude started showing up. At a conference in NYC, we went on a tour of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and got the chance to walk around and see all of the altars surrounding the church. The last altar was of St. Jude, so I lit a candle for my family.
Then, two weeks later, I went on silent retreat, where the Sisters had randomly placed a medal of a particular saint on each woman’s bed. Mine happened to be St. Jude.
The Saints are among us and their “jobs” in Heaven right now, besides worshipping our Lord and Savior, are to intercede for the militant Church on earth. Ask a Saint for his or her intercession today and see what happens!