Question: How do people become recognized as saints?
The road to sainthood begins at the grass-roots. Ordinary Christians, perhaps in a parish or a religious community, recognize that someone of extraordinary holiness has lived among them. The memory of that person inspires them. The story of his or her life is told, perhaps in a book. People pray to the person, asking intercession for some favor, and their prayers may be answered. Extraordinary signs, perhaps a cure from sickness, occur. A local group may be formed which seeks to make this person's life and gifts more widely known.
After a long period of time, sometimes many years, the bishop of the diocese where that person lived may be asked to begin the local process for declaring a saint. If he sees merit in the request, he sets up a board of experts to investigate the person's life, soundness of faith and reputation for holiness. Those who knew the person are interviewed. If miracles are attributed to that person's intercession, they must verified by medical experts. Finally the bishop must ascertain from the other bishops of the region if this person is known and venerated more widely than in one local area.
Then, if there is reason to proceed further, the bishop may petition Rome to begin the process of beatification.
Beatification is the next step toward sainthood. It begins when the local bishop provides the materials he has accumulated to the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Using the materials, officials of the congregation create an historical-critical account of the candidate's life and spirituality. One important criteria sought at this stage is the historical importance of the candidate: Did he or she meet a particular challenge of their time and place? Did the candidate offer a new example of holiness to the world in which he lived? Or was he truly a martyr, one who died for faith in Jesus Christ?
If the candidate was martyred, a miracle need not be sought. If the candidate did not die as a martyr, then one miracle after death must be proven, through the scrutiny of a body of medical experts. Once they find it acceptable, and the candidate's life is judged truly heroic by a group of theological experts and cardinals, then the pope can declare that beatification may proceed. After the beatifcation takes place, the candidate can be called blessed and veneration may be offered by the local church. The pope can then go further and canonize the blessed.
Canonization is the final step that declares someone a saint. It means that the candidate, already called blessed, is entered into the worldwide list of saints recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. First, however, in the case of a candidate who is not a martyr, the church looks for another authentic miracle attributed to the candidate's intercession, as a sign from God of the candidate's heroic holiness. Then, if the candidate's reputation for holiness continues to grow worldwide, the pope may decide to canonize.
The church does not claim that its own list of saints is exhaustive. In fact, its celebration of the Feast of All Saints on November 1st points to a "huge crowd which no one could count from every nation, race, people, and tongue." (Revelations 7) The church's list of canonized saints is only meant to witness to God's grace at work through every time and place, from the first centuries until now.
If there is any trend in the process of canonization it is the search for more "lay" saints: mothers and fathers, men and women who were active in the world of family, business and politics and showed themselves to be holy in a secular world. The church is looking for original saints, who responded to the unique needs of their times, and so can open the way of holiness to others.
Above all, the saints are examples of how to follow Jesus Christ in every circumstance. "In the lives of those who shared in our humanity and yet were transformed into especially successful images of Christ, God vividly manifests to men his presence and his face. He speaks to us in them, and gives us a sign of his Kingdom, to which we are powerfully drawn, surrounded as we are by so many witnesses ( cf. Hebrews 12,1), and having such an argument for the truth of the gospel." (Lumen Gentium 50, Vatican II)
For a detailed discussion of this process, consider looking at Kenneth Woodward's book, Making Saints, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. Links of possible interest include:
This "Ask a Catholic" response written by Fr Victor Hoagland, C.P.
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