The veneration of saints has been a common practice since the early church, but it was only gradually that the identification of who is a saint came to be regulated by bishops and pope. Beginning in the 10th century, the Roman Church asserted that no one could be venerated as a saint without its approval. The first recorded canonization of a saint is Ulrich of Augsburg by Pope John XV in 993.
The process of canonization became a part of canon law in the Roman Catholic Church and developed into a long and complex process. This process was simplified by the Apostolic Constitution Divinus Perfectionis Magister of January 25, 1983.
The process of canonization is slightly more informal in the Orthodox Church. Saints are usually canonized by the synod of bishops within a particular autocephalous church, but sometimes saints come to be popularly venerated without official canonization.
The Significance of Canonization
The primary purpose of canonization is to officially authorize veneration and intercession of a particular saint. The investigation process that precedes canonization seeks primarily to ensure that the person is in heaven and God is working through him or her.
Being canonized as a saint means that:
1. The saint's name is added to the catalogue of saints (meaning that veneration is authorized)
2. The saint is invoked in public prayers
3. Churches may be dedicated in the saint's memory
4. The Mass can be offered in the saint's honor
5. Feast days are celebrated in the saint's memory
6. Images of the saint are made in which his or her head is surrounded by a halo
7. The saint's relics (remains) are enclosed in vessels and publicly honored.
The Importance of Miracles
If a person is martyred for the faith, miracles are not necessary to be declared a saint. As mentioned above, the purpose of canonization is to verify that the person is now in heaven, and all those who die as martyrs are believed to go straight to heaven.
For those who died naturally, however, at least one miracle is necessary to be declared Blessed (beatified) and at least two miracles are necessary to be declared a saint (canonized). These miracles must have occurred after the person's death (to demonstrate that the person is in heaven and able to assist the living), but miracles during his or her lifetime are also taken into account as evidence of God's favor.
When considering a reported miracle, the Church often consults with medical, scientific and theological experts to see if there might be alternative explanations. If the experts can find no explanation, they report that to the Church (they do not declare the event to be a miracle, just that they could find no natural explanation).
Phenomena investigated as miracles after a would-be saint's death include the following:
- Healings attributed to intercession of the saint or contact with relics.
- Incorruptibility – the saint's body does not decay after a long period in the grave. Example: St. Catherine of Siena (d. 1380) still has not decayed.
- Liquefaction – the dried blood of the saint liquefies every year on the day of his or her death. Example: St. Januarius (c.275-305), patron saint of Naples, September 19.
- Odor of sanctity – body exudes a sweet aroma instead of the normal stench of decay. Example: St. Teresa of Avila (1515-82) – sweet odor from her grave for nine months after her death.
Miracles during the life of the saint that have been reported:
- Levitation – the saint floats in the air. St. Joseph of Cupertino (1603-63) often levitated during prayer.
- Stigmata – the saint's body exhibits five wounds of Christ, which usually bleed during Mass. St. Francis of Assisi and Padre Pio are examples.
- Bilocation – the saint reportedly appeared in two places at once. Padre Pio (1887-1968) is an example.
The Process of Canonization
The process of declaring a deceased Christian to be saint was originally quite informal, but became increasingly regulated over the centuries and is now defined by canon law. The steps for becoming a saint are as follows:
- Usually between 5 and 50 years after a would-be saint's death, a formal request made to consider person as saint. The group making the request, called the Actor Causae, consists of people from the candidate's church and community, and the request is directed to the bishop of the diocese where the person died. The request includes testimony of the person's exceptional virtue and dedication to God.
- The bishop decides whether the evidence is compelling enough to take it to Rome. If so, he asks the Congregation for the Causes of Saints for permission to open the cause.
- If permission is granted, the bishop opens a tribunal and calls witnesses to attest to the quality of the person's public life. The person must be shown to have been virtuous, devout, religious, and characterized by love, kindness, prudence and other virtues (concrete examples are required). Miracles are not necessary at this point, but they are recorded if mentioned. If the person passes this step, he or she is called a Servant of God.
- The bishop sends a report to Rome, where it is translated into Italian. This step is called the Apostolic Process.
- A summary called the Positio is presented to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
- Nine theologians scrutinize the evidence and documentation. If majority pass it, goes to Congregation.
- If they approve, the Prefect of the Congregation authorizes person to be called Venerable.
- If any miracles are reported (which qualify the person for beatification or canonization), the Prefect presents the cause to the pope to decide. Canonization is considered a function of papal infallibility, as it is important that believers venerate and pray to only those who are actually in heaven.
- The pope declares beatification or canonization at a special Mass in the saint's honor.
Ceremony of Canonization
The formal declaration of beatification or canonization occurs during a special Mass conducted by the pope. It usually takes place outdoors in St. Peter's Square before large crowds, but sometimes is conducted in the saint's home country. In 2001, over a half million people attended the canonization of Padre Pio (1887-1968). Four months later, Josemaria Escriva was canonized before 300,000 faithful.
The canonization ceremony is conducted as follows:
- The saint's life history is read aloud.
- The pope chants the following in Latin:
- In honor of the Blessed Trinity, for the exaltation of the Catholic Faith and the growth of Christian life, with the authority of Our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul and Our Own, after lengthy reflection, having assiduously invoked God's assistance and taken into account the opinion of many brothers of ours in the episcopate, we declare and define [name] to be a saint [or "to be blessed"], and we enroll him in the Catalogue of the saints, and we establish that in the whole Church he should be devoutly honored among the saints. In the name of the Father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
- The person is officially recognized as blessed or as a saint at this point. A large tapestry with an image of the saint is unfurled before the faithful to admire and venerate.
- "Chapter 15: Calling on the Canonized," in John Trigilio, Jr., and Kenneth Brighenti, Catholicism for Dummies (Wiley, 2003), pp. 273-292.
- Camillus Beccari, "Beatification and Canonization." The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. II (1907).
- "Canonization." F.L. Cross, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford UP, 1997).