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The canonization process

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Pope Francis will declare Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Oscar Romero as saints Oct. 14. Many Catholics and others wonder, “What is the process behind declaring someone a saint?”

Keep in mind that prior to the year 1234, no formal process existed. Usually martyrs and those recognized as holy were declared saints by the local church at the time of their deaths. The faithful venerated these saints and asked for their intercession; for example, St. Lucy (d. 304) went to pray at the tomb of St. Agatha, a fellow Sicilian who was martyred a century earlier.

Eventually, the church saw the need to tighten the canonization process to ensure, as best as possible, that only holy people were recognized as saints. For instance, long ago, a local church in Sweden canonized an imbibing monk who was killed in a drunken brawl — hardly evidence of martyrdom. Therefore, in the year 1234, Pope Gregory IX established procedures to investigate the life of a candidate saint. In 1588, Pope Sixtus V entrusted the Congregation of Rites (now the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints) to oversee the entire process. Various popes, and most recently Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, have revised and improved the norms and procedures for canonization.

Today the process is: When a person dies who has "fame of sanctity" or "fame of martyrdom," the bishop of the diocese initiates an investigation. This process can only begin five years after the death of the person. (The pope may waive this requirement, as in the cases of Pope John Paul II and St. Mother Teresa.) The bishop then petitions the Holy See for permission to initiate a Cause for Beatification and Canonization. If granted, the candidate is declared a “Servant of God.”

The diocesan tribunal now undertakes an informative gathering process. The candidate's writings are examined closely to ensure they possess "purity of doctrine," i.e. nothing heretical or contrary to the faith. Those who knew the candidate also would be interviewed. After a thorough examination, which may take years, the Tribunal renders a judgment. The bishop makes the final judgment as to whether or not the Servant of God demonstrated heroic virtue.

If so, all of the information is gathered, bound and sealed. This information, called the Acta (Acts), is submitted to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints and entrusted to a relator, who is appointed to oversee the process. A theological commission examines carefully the Acta, and prepares a Positio, a summary of the life and virtues of the candidate. The theological commission then renders a judgment, and passes a recommendation to the members of the Congregation. The Congregation then decides whether or not to recommend to the Holy Father a Decree of Heroic Virtue. If it does and if the Holy Father agrees, then the candidate is declared Venerable.

The next step is beatification. A martyr, who died for the faith and truly offered his life in a sacrifice of love for Christ and the church, may be beatified and declared blessed by virtue of martyrdom itself. For example, Archbishop Romero was declared a martyr because he was assassinated while offering Mass by those “who hated the faith.”

Otherwise, the candidate must be credited with a miracle. To verify a miracle, both a scientific commission and a theological commission investigate the miracle. While the scientific commission must determine that the miracle has no scientific explanation, the theological commission must determine whether God performed the miracle through the intercession of the candidate. Once the pope approves the miracle, the Servant of God would be beatified, and called “Blessed.” With the recent norms, the Prefect of the Congregation usually conducts the beatification ceremony, because it is not considered an infallible act. The Blessed may now be venerated publicly, but with restriction to a city, diocese, region or religious community. Accordingly, the pope would authorize a special prayer, Mass or proper Divine Office honoring the blessed.

After beatification, another miracle is needed for the formal declaration of sainthood. Once the pope approves the miracle, the Blessed would be canonized. Pope Paul VI, who oversaw the Second Vatican Council and who courageously issued the encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” interceded in the healing of two unborn children.

In the Rite of Canonization, the pope infallibly declares that the person is with God and worthy of imitation as a faithful disciple of Christ. The pope does not “make” a person a saint, but recognizes him or her as a saint. The saint may now be venerated throughout the universal church. Also, the saint’s feast day may be added to the universal liturgical calendar, or simply to the local calendar. For example, St. Anthony of Padua’s feast day is celebrated June 13 on the universal calendar, whereas St. Kateri Tekakwitha’s feast day July 14 is celebrated only in America.

In all, we must not lose sight that this thorough process exists because of how important the saints are as examples for us, the faithful, who strive to live in the Kingdom of God now and see its fulfillment in Heaven. The Second Vatican Council declared, "God shows to men, in a vivid way, His presence and His face in the lives of those companions of ours in the human condition who are more perfectly transformed in the image of Christ. He speaks to us in them and offers us a sign of this kingdom to which we are powerfully attracted, so great a cloud of witnesses is there given and such a witness to the truth of the Gospel. It is not merely by the title of example that we cherish the memory of those in heaven; we seek rather that by this devotion to the exercise of fraternal charity the union of the whole church in the spirit may be strengthened" (Lumen Gentium, 50).

Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Church in Potomac Falls and episcopal vicar for faith formation and director of the Office of Catechetics.




















© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018