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Deacon-structing canonizations: The process

Deacon Pedro

Monday, February 14, 2022

Canonization Mass in St. Peter's Square in the Vatican on October 14, 2018. Photo courtesy of Presidencia El Salvador
The other week we began by looking at the history of what we informally call “making saints”. Christians have been recognizing holy people and celebrating them after their deaths since the beginning of the Church, and it was around the 11th century that the Church began to officially proclaim saints universally and therefore develop criteria and a process to do so. The one thing you have to remember from the last post is that the Church does not “make saints”. When the Church canonizes someone, it is a declaration that they are saints and that their lives are worthy of imitation.
Of course, confirming that someone lived a heroic and holy life worthy of imitation and confirming definitely that they are in Heaven would be an infallible statement (without error) and therefore requires some investigating. This is why the process of canonization can be a long and expensive one. The Vatican department responsible for regulating the process is the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, created in 1588 by Pope Sixtus V (originally as the Sacred Congregation of Rites) and restructured by St. Paul VI in 1969. The current process is outlined in St. John Paul II’s 1983 Apostolic Constitution Divinus Perfectionis Magister.
Opening the cause
I remember when the cause for Pope John Paul II was opened, there was debate about the period of time between the person’s death and the opening of the cause. The required period is five years, but on very rare occasions, the pope has granted a dispensation. This is what happened in the case of John Paul II. He died in April 2005, and his cause was opened in June of that same year. He was beatified in May 2011 and canonized three years later in 2014. The same thing happened with Mother Teresa. She died in 1997, and her cause was opened in 1999 following a request from the Bishop of Calcutta to waive the waiting period. She was beatified in 2003 and canonized in 2016.
What is more common is for the process to take many years, centuries in some cases. The first canonized saint after the process was streamlined was St. Ulrich, who died in 973 and was canonized 20 years later. St. Francis of Assisi died in 1226 and was canonized two years later. On the other hand, St. Bede died in 735 and wasn’t canonized until 1899; St. Kateri Tekakwitha died in 1680 and wasn’t canonized until 2012.
Servants of God
The request to open a cause for canonization for someone usually comes from their bishop, the bishop of the diocese where they lived, or the religious superior of the order they belonged to. This person would have, in turn, received a request from the individuals or groups who knew the person in question. They are referred to as the sponsors. The appropriate authority receiving the request (usually the bishop) will then assign a postulator (also referred to as a vice-postulator), who will do an initial investigation before the proper authority presents the request to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
The postulator must be someone who has knowledge of theology, canon law, and history, and who is well versed in the practice of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Their job is to conduct a thorough investigation into the life of the person in question. Other than researching the person’s life, the postulator is looking for evidence to support the person’s heroic virtues and sanctity, and, if the case, details of their martyrdom. You may have heard of a particular person’s guild (I can think of the Fulton Sheen Guild or the Dorothy Day Guild to name two). This is the stage when the guild is formed in order to seek sponsorship for the cause.
This first level of information is presented to the bishop in a document called the Libellus and opens the diocesan phase. For the bishop to proceed, he needs permission from the Vatican. He presents the findings to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and if they are accepted, the cause is officially opened and the person is referred to as a Servant of God. Examples of Servants of God that you may have heard of are Nicholas Black Elk, Catherine Doherty, Dorothy Day, Emil Kapaun, Hélder Câmara, Marcel Van, Thea Bowman, and Vincent Capodanno.
The diocesan phase
Once the cause is formally opened, the real investigation begins. This is when witnesses may be interviewed and the person’s writings are reviewed. The people whose causes lasted a long time likely were “stuck” in this phase. In the case of St. Kateri, the issue of confirming the veracity of miracles that took place 400 years ago was the main cause of the delay. In the case of St. Oscar Romero, the process was suspended for 15 years in order to allow for a more careful examination of his homilies.
During this stage, the postulator must reside in the diocese, but a postulator general is appointed to oversee the procedures and is the one who will work directly with the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome. It is not unusual for a postulator general to handle many causes at once. Most religious orders have their own postulators general who handle all the causes for that particular congregation.
Is is usually during this phase that the Servant of God's body is exhumed. This is done in order to confirm certain aspects of their life and death but also to prepare relics for veneration. Most saints are entombed in a church or chapel, so exhumation is necessary in order to move their remains to this final resting place.
At the end of this phase, a written petition, detailing the Servant of God's biography, details on their martyrdom or offering of life, heroic virtues, writings, testimonies of witnesses, details of miracles and other evidence, is presented to the bishop for acceptance.
The Roman phase: Venerables
The diocesan phase is over when there is sufficient evidence of martyrdom or of a life of heroic virtue. (Let me note that even if someone is a martyr, usually, the reasons for their canonization are not because of how they died but because of how they lived.) At this point, all the information is reviewed by the office in Rome, which may include gathering more evidence. During this stage, the postulator general prepares the request (or argument), called a positio, which includes all the necessary information on the saint's cause. The Congregation reviews the positio and, if it is accepted, makes a recommendation to the pope. The time period between the preparation of a positio and the actual recommendation varies and can be many years.
The Holy Father then has to accept the recommendation and the candidate can be referred to as venerable. Examples of candidates for sainthood who are now in the venerable stage that you may know are Augustus Tolton, Mary Ward, Matt Talbot, Délia Tetreault, Frederic Baraga, Patrick Peyton, and Pierre Toussaint.
The Roman phase: Beatification and canonization
The next two steps can take a long time as well, but they are much simpler. They involve the identification and confirmation of two miracles. Depending on the level of detail of the initial inquiries, this process may require returning to the diocesan phase. The first miracle is required for the person to be beatified, or declared “blessed”, and the second miracle is required for the person to be canonized or declared a saint. If the person was martyred, only one miracle is required: No miracle is needed for the beatification.
As you can imagine, confirming a miracle can be a complicated and lengthy process. The miracle has to be able to be verified, and so generally, they are medical miracles. They have to have occurred after the candidate has died and be attributed to the intercession of the venerable or blessed. This shows that they are in Heaven (and therefore able to intercede to God on our behalf as it is God who grants the miracle, not the saint; the saint merely intercedes for us). A scientific commission (to show that the cure had no natural causes) and a theological commission (to show that the nature of the miracle can only be attributed to God as a result of the intercession of the Servant of God alone) are assigned to this task.
Once the miracle is approved and the Holy Father accepts it, he authorizes the person to be venerated publicly as a blessed. This takes place during a Beatification Mass. Today, these ceremonies usually take place in the diocese where the candidate lived and are presided over by a papal representative or the local bishop. At the time of the beatification, an official image of the blessed is unveiled and their feast day is also declared, usually the date of their death (their entry into Heaven). Two upcoming beatifications this year are that of Venerable Pauline Jaricot and John Paul I.
After a second miracle is approved, the person can then be canonized. This is the final step in declaring a person a saint. The Canonization Mass typically takes place in St. Peter’s Square and is presided over by the pope. In total Pope Francis has canonized 56 people. St. John Paul II canonized 482 saints, more people than all his predecessors combined. See the list of saints and blesseds proclaimed by St. John Paul II.
In summary, a canonization is an infallible declaration that the person is definitely in Heaven and can therefore intercede for us. It permits universal public veneration of the saint, a person who is a model of heroic virtue, worthy of imitation to the faithful.

pedroIn every blog post, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: [email protected]

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