Making a Saint: The Canonization Process
Saint, Blessed, Venerable, Servant of God. It can all get a little confusing if one doesn’t know what these titles mean or how they are applied. Hopefully, by looking at the typical process a person goes through in order to be named a Saint, some of this confusion can be taken away.
Before jumping in, however, it is important to note two things:
First, the Catholic Church does not ‘make’ Saints. A person who has died is either in heaven, on their way via purgatory, or they are in hell. It is Jesus Christ, not the Church, who determines where a person is. So when the Church “names” Saints, it is merely recognizing that the person is in heaven.
Second, there is not an opposite process. There is no process of naming those who are in hell. The Church truly believes in the unfathomable mercy of Jesus Christ and holds out hope that all who turn to Him in their final hour, or even in their final second, may achieve salvation. Therefore, the Church has never, and will never, declare somebody to be in hell.
It is also helpful to know that this process is not set in stone, and is not dogma. It can be changed. In fact, it has been changed over the years. For instance, the infamous ‘devil’s advocate,’ a person assigned to make the case as to why a person should not be declared a Saint, was removed by Pope St. John Paul II. Thus, today the process is not the same process it was 100 years ago and may yet be different 100 years from now. Almost any stage of the process can be dispensed with by the pope for good reason and there are plenty of additional examples of this historically.
So, finally, what are the steps to being recognized as a Saint?
Entering the Canonization Process
The first step is that the individual being considered for Sainthood has to have died. This may seem like an obvious step, but it is important. Declaring somebody a Saint is not simply saying they are a good person or that a lot of people like them, but rather that they are sharing in the glory of heaven with the Trinity. In order to do this, they must have died.
“Servant of God”
The second step is that people must consider that the particular deceased person 1) possessed what is known as “heroic virtue,” 2) is now in heaven, and 3) should be recognized bt the Church for the sake of the faithful here on earth. These people can petition the bishop of the diocese in which the person lived to begin an investigation of the person and their life. The bishop, or his representatives, compile all the person’s writings along with as much testimony as they can gather on the person and writes a report. During this process, the testimony gathered is not only from those who were fans of the person. For instance, Christopher Hitchens (a famous critic of Mother Theresa and Christianity in general) was interviewed for the process for Saint Theresa of Calcutta. Once the bishop has compiled all this information the person may be known by the title of “Servant of God.” This is currently where Cora Evans is in the process.
After the bishop completes his investigation he sends his findings to the Congregation of the Causes of Saints. This group, located in Rome, begins further investigation and at the end of their investigation issues a statement that either attests to the “heroic virtue” of the person, or denies it. If the person under consideration was also killed, this is the stage at which it is determined if they were killed, in fact, for their faith or for a different reason. If the person passes this stage they may be known as “Venerable” and people may seek their intercession in prayer. As of the writing of this article, Archbishop Fulton Sheen is currently at this stage of the canonization process.
That their intercession may be sought represents a critical turning point. From this stage forward miracles are required. Those with a particular devotion to the person under consideration begin praying for the intercession of the would-be Saint. In order to take the next step in the process a verifiable miracle must occur. This miracle must be investigated and proven to be impossible outside of divine explanation. These types of miracles are often medical, as in cured terminal diseases, but not always.
Once a confirmed miracle has been attributed to this person’s intercession, a ceremony is held in which the person is proclaimed to be a “Blessed.” This is the final stage before being officially declared a Saint. Often times this ceremony is held in the home country of the person. Pope St. John Paul II flew to South Korea for the Beatification of (now) St. Andrew Kim and Companions and he also flew to the Philippines for the Beatification of (now) St. Lorenzo Ruiz and Companions. Once this has happened, the person is very close to being named a Saint.
The final requirement is one more confirmed miracle. The requirements for this miracle are the same as the first miracle and once the miracle has been confirmed the person may be named a Saint, which usually happens in a ceremony involving Mass at the Vatican. The pope may choose to waive the requirements for one or both miracles, as Pope Francis did for the second miracle for St. Pope John XXIII. Often the process is shortened for a person who was martyred for their faith. In fact, it has become common practice to waive one of the miracles for martyrs. Once a person has been declared a saint, they are assigned a feast day and that feast day may be celebrated around the world.
Ultimately, regardless of whether or not the process is shortened, the end result is the same - the Church is given the great gift of another person who is declared to be in heaven and another resource to turn to for prayer and intercession.