So How Exactly Does a Saint Become a Saint?
During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave the mandate to his followers that we, “must be perfect, as [our] heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). This is no small call. Christ states it on the heels of describing the Beatitudes, turning some of the Old Testament laws on their heads, and telling us that we must love our enemies. He continues by teaching us how to practice true piety, how to pray, and what we must do and who we must be to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. He describes how we are called to holiness.
The Church proclaims this as the “Universal Call to Holiness.” Each and every member of the Church, each and every member of Christ’s mystical body, is called to be holy, called to be perfect as the Father is perfect. No matter our state in life, our job, how we are raised, where we live, or at what age we become Christ’s disciples, we are called to live a holy life. The Second Vatican Council succinctly stated this universal call that has always been the teaching of the Church in this way, “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (Lumen Gentium, 40).
The Church has produced the fruit of many, many holy men and women from across the ages and around the globe. Some were dirt poor, others were wealthy aristocrats or royalty. Some received the finest education while others lived in ignorance. Some were married with children and others made religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Some are as young as six years old and others are well into old age. What these men, women, and children had in common was a burning love for Christ and a wholehearted devotion to him. Some of these holy ones have been given the title Saint with a capital “S,” while there are others who have not yet been raised to that kind of honor. What does this signify?
There is a formal process for the Church to declare someone a Saint. In the Sacred Scriptures, there are several instances when the faithful are referred to as the “saints,” because the author is trying to designate those who have set themselves aside to love and serve the Lord, but they are not using the term the same way we do today. Those who the Church recognizes as a Saint are those she recognizes as having lived a heroically virtuous life on earth and who are definitively in Heaven with Christ. This is really important to know because you will often hear the casual phrase that the Church is “making so-and-so a saint,” when this is not the case. It the grace of God and the person’s own cooperation that make him or her a saint. In the process of canonization, the Church is only recognizes that person as a saint and encourages the faithful to venerate him or her and follow his or her given example of a holy life.
So how does the Church go through this process of recognizing a saint as a Saint? There are essentially five phases to the process.
Phase 1: Local Level
Typically, five years must pass before the cause for a candidate for canonization can open. Depending on the circumstances, the pope can waive this period of waiting, as Pope Benedict XVI for Pope St. John Paul II whose cause opened the same year he died.
The bishop of the diocese the candidate is from is the one responsible for officially opening the investigation into the life of the candidate. There is an officially designated petitioner who asks the bishop through another person called a postulator to open the investigation.
The bishop then establishes a tribunal – a panel of investigators – who will investigate the life of the candidate. The tribunal investigates the actions and the writings of the candidate. They will interview witnesses and acquaintances. As they talk to people and look at the candidate’s written texts (scholarly, business, personal, etc.), the investigators will examine whether or not the candidate in question truly lived a life of heroic virtue appropriate to their state in life, and whether they adhered to the Faith. The bishop then sends the collected information to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
Phase 2: The Congregation Weighs In
The Congregation for the Causes of Saints can reject or accept the application from the candidate’s diocese. Should they accept the application, they then begin their own investigation into the life of the candidate. When an application is accepted, the candidate may be called Servant of God.
One such Servant of God is the woman to whom this website is dedicated: Cora Evans. Cora was a convert, a mystic, a writer, a wife, and a mother from California who embodied what it means to always and everywhere offer our lives as a sacrificial offering to the Lord.
Phase 3: A Declaration
If the Congregation for the Causes of Saints approves a candidate after their own investigation, this means that they declare that the candidate lived a heroically virtuous life and pursued holiness. Once the Congregation has made this declaration then the candidate may be called Venerable.
One such Venerable is Augustus Tolton who was born a slave in 1854 and died God’s faithful priest in 1897. Augustus was put through seminary in Rome by his parish priest, who early on in his life recognized Augustus’s holiness and desire to serve God. He was a dedicated, humble priest who endured racism with patience, and was known for his eloquent and moving sermons.
Phase 4: Beatification
For a candidate to be raised from Venerable to Blessed status, a miracle must take place through the intercession of the candidate. Many saints perform miracles by God’s grace during their lives, but a miracle for beatification must take place after the person’s death. The miracle must be verified by a thorough investigation that proves that whatever miracle took place is scientifically inexplicable.
At this stage, the veneration of the Blessed is still usually limited to a specific regional area or among the religious community whence the holy person came. Now in a time of easy global travel, Beatification Masses typically take place in the diocese where the holy person was from.
In the case of a martyr, no miracle is required for the candidate to be raised to the title of Blessed.
One such Blessed is Bl. Solanus Casey who entered with the Capuchin Franciscans in Detroit in 1897. He was a humble porter at his monastery who always had a kind word for those who knocked. He became known for his generous spirit, and was known for healing miracles during his life through his fervent prayers. He was beatified in Detroit in 2017.
Phase 5: Canonization
For a Blessed to become a recognized, canonized Saint another investigated, posthumous, scientifically inexplicable miracle is required for martyrs and non-martyrs. When the miracle has been investigated and accepted as true, then the Blessed will be elevated to Saint during a Canonization Mass. Canonization Masses are conducted by the Pope in Rome. It is after canonization that the Saint is upheld for public veneration of the entire Church.
Saint John Henry Newman was recently (as this is written) canonized by Pope Francis on October 13, 2019. John Henry Newman was a convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism in the mid-1800s. He was an extremely well known preacher and scholar, and is already upheld as the greatest English theologian the Church has produced.
This is how God’s holy ones become recognized Saints of the Church. How many unknown Saints are before God’s throne? We’ll only know on the Last Day! May we always strive onwards and upwards in our call to holiness in Christ that we might join the Saints in worshipping him forever!