Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

October 29, 2009

How Does the Church Decide Who Becomes a Saint?

In anticipation of All Saints' Day on November 1, share the following question and answer with your students.

How does the Church decide who becomes a saint and who doesn't?

The Church sets aside All Saints’ Day (November 1) to honor the countless anonymous saints who are with the Lord in heaven. These are the uncanonized saints. Undoubtedly, among these millions of saints are many of your own relatives from past generations. If their faith and love were heroic while here on earth, you can be sure they are in heaven. This is the day of the liturgical year when the Church remembers their lives.

Canonization is the official process the Church uses to declare that a person is in heaven and may be honored as a saint. The word canonization comes from a Greek word that means “measuring rod” or “standard” and has come to mean “to be on the list officially.” In the early Church, the title of saint was bestowed on a person locally when the people who knew the saint acclaimed him or her to be one. Over time, abuses set in and Pope John XV in 993 took steps to formalize the process of declaring a person a saint. Pope John Paul II revised the saint-making process in 1983 and 1997 and renamed the Vatican congregation in charge as the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. There are three major steps involved in being put on the official list of saints:

  1. Supporters in a local diocese nominate a candidate's name after his or her death by petitioning the bishop to investigate the person's qualifications for sainthood, that is, whether he or she lived a holy life of faith and morals and exemplified the theological and cardinal virtues to an extraordinary degree. The bishop appoints a postulator to examine the person’s life. If the bishop believes a good case has been made, he gives the results of the cause to Rome where the Congregation for Causes of Saints determines if the person lived a heroic life of virtue. If the answer is yes, then the person is given the title “servant of God” or “Venerable” and the cause moves to the next stage.
  2.  Stage two is known as “beatification” where the person's life and writings are carefully examined to make sure they conform to Catholic teaching. This step involves interviewing known living acquaintances of the saint. For the process to proceed, it must show that praying to the candidate resulted in one miracle because of his or her intercession. (However, a martyr—someone who died for the faith—is not required to have a miracle.) If the candidate passes this stage, the Church declares the person “Blessed.” This means Catholics can venerate this person within a certain geographical area or in the religious community to which he or she belonged.
  3. Step three (canonization) involves an exhaustive examination of the candidate's life by the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. A second miracle is necessary, “attributed to the intercession of the Blessed and having occurred after his beatification”7 before the commission of bishops and cardinals present the cause to the pope. If the pope approves, he will issue a Bull of Canonization, which proclaims the person a saint of the Catholic Church. Catholics may now honor this saint publicly throughout the world. Bishops can name churches after the saint. And the Church may assign a liturgical feast day to the newly canonized saint.

As you can see, the process of canonization is complex. You may have noticed that many canonized saints belong to religious orders. Does this mean that lay people, like married couples, are not holy? No! The practical reason is that religious orders have the financial means and staying power to promote the cause of a particular candidate over a long time period.

Most saints are anonymous. It is the hope of the Church that one day Christians will also pray to and honor you. Christ calls each person to be a saint. He wants us to live our ordinary lives in an extraordinary way by loving and serving him through others. As the song goes, may you be “in their number when the saints go marching in.”

Saints Assignment

Research the ongoing canonization process of Blessed Mother Teresa and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

Also, you might want to examine the biographies and pictures of some recently beatified and canonized persons at the Vatican website. Type in "canonization" in the search engine.

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