The Step-by-Step Guide to How a Person Becomes a Canonized Saint
Banners with the official images of (L to R) Sister Irmã Dulce Pontes, Mother Giuseppina Vannini, John Henry Newman, Mother Mariam Thresia and Marguerite Bays hang on the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica Oct. 10, 2019, three days before their canonization. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez / CNA/EWTN News)
When the Church declares holy people to be saints, we are assured they are in heaven and eager to intercede for us.
Short or long, the steps to sainthood follow a definite route, with all roads to it leading to and from Rome.
These steps on the way to declaring a person a saint have no set time limit. Well on his way is Carlo Acutis, who died at age 15 in 2006 and was declared “Blessed” in October 2020. Then there is Blessed Margaret of Castello, who lived and died 700 years ago. Pope Francis approved her canonization this past April.
Let’s look at the steps leading to someone being declared a saint, dictating for certain they are in heaven with the Lord.
The Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints points out that it begins with a person’s “fame for holiness.” Do the faithful speak of these men and women and their exemplary lives, positive influence, apostolic fruitfulness and edifying deaths?
To make sure their reputation for sanctity is enduring, the official process of looking into their cause for canonization can’t begin until five years after they died. Although it rarely happens, the pope can waive this requirement. Pope John Paul II waived three years from the waiting period for Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Benedict XVI waived all five years for John Paul II, whose cause started immediately.
Next comes the diocesan phase. A petitioner — usually a religious order or the bishop of the diocese where the man or woman died — can petition Rome to start the cause for canonization. With a nod of approval, he gets the ball rolling by appointing a postulator to collect documents and testimonies about the life and holiness of the possible saint-to-be who at this step is named a “Servant of God.” This step aims to confirm the person’s heroic virtues — with emphasis on “heroic,” meaning well above average.
The postulator will also seek further evidence of the person’s reputation for holiness — whether, in life and death, they had a reputation for sanctity and a life rich in virtues — or whether they were a martyr, confessor (a witness of the faith without being martyred) or made an offering of life (a new category added in 2017, which is defined “as the experience of a premature death due to the offering, or sacrificing, of one’s life out of Christian charity”).
The two ways used to reach this goal are, first, through the testimonies of people who knew the Servant of God and can give as many details about him or her as possible, and, second, though collecting and examining all the writings and documents concerning the Servant of God, including, of course, his or her own public and private writings. In the case of John Paul II, that was voluminous. Sister Lucia of Fatima, whose cause is in progress, also has a long paper trail. This process looks to make sure there is not something contrary to faith or morality among this written content. It often takes years to complete, especially when the writings are extensive.
Off to Rome
When everything is collected and the bishop approves, the results are sent to Rome, to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. What the diocese has gathered is placed into a formal volume called the positio — a work summarizing the evidence to demonstrate convincingly the life, heroic virtues and renown or reputation of the Servant of God. A theological commission studies and votes on it. It then moves to the cardinal and bishops of the congregation for their vote. Negative, and the cause stops with no appeal. Affirmative, it is sent to the Holy Father. If he agrees, the person gets the title of “Venerable.”
On to Beatification
The next step on the road to sainthood is beatification. If the candidate is a martyr for the faith, he or she is immediately made a “Blessed.” Others need a miracle recognized as happening through their posthumous intercession. This step is not easy. The miracle is commonly and normally a physical healing that medicine and science can’t explain. The miracle is presented to Rome, and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints has a group of specialists, believers and nonbelievers, who examine the miracle, which must be complete and lasting and have no natural explanation.
As far back as September 1743, Pope Benedict XIV created a guild of medical experts for this task. Over the years the regulations have been revised and updated by such popes as Venerable Pius XII, St. Paul VI and St. John Paul II. A majority of experts (5 out of 7, or 4 out of 6) must agree on the miracle.
Additionally, a theological commission judges whether or not the cure was a miracle and if this miracle is attributable to God through the Venerable’s intercession.
Another Giant Step
At this point, the cause moves toward the final step of canonization and the title of “Saint.”
Necessary for this step is one additional miracle that happens after the beatification. The requirements are the same as for the first miracle, and the miracle must be attributed to the intercession of the Blessed. If everything passes the committees, the results are presented to the Holy Father, who then makes the final decision about declaring this particular man or woman to be a saint and worthy of public veneration by the whole Church.
Normally, the canonization takes place during Mass at the Vatican.
The pope has the power to waive the requirements for one or both miracles. Recently, for the canonization of St. John XXIII, Pope Francis waived the requirement for a second miracle. And often that requirement for a second miracle is waived when it comes to martyrs. And this April Pope Francis canonized Blessed Margaret of Castello, a blind 14th-century Italian lay Dominican who was beatified way back in 1609. He waived the need for a second miracle using this procedure, which is called “equivalent” canonization.
The new saint might have universal appeal and may be added to the general liturgical calendar as a memorial or optional memorial. If their appeal is more localized, they can be added to the calendar of a particular region, country or religious institute.
In any event, when the Church declares holy people to be saints, we are assured they are in heaven and we have a definite heavenly helper to ask for intercession.
All you holy men and women, pray for us!