Understanding Sainthood

While somewhat overshadowed by the royal wedding in Britain (may God bless the happy couple!), there has been some media attention directed toward the beatification of Blessed Pope John Paul II. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the media reporting on this event has been riddled with inaccuracies and half-truths about the Catholic process of canonization and the theology behind sainthood. If you are interested in understanding sainthood, pay no attention whatsoever to what you have seen and read in the secular media.

First and foremost, almost every article refers in one way or another to the Catholic Church ‘making’ people Saints. Let us be perfectly clear on this: the Saints are Saints on their own merits and by the grace of God. The Catholic Church doesn’t make anybody a Saint; the Church simply recognizes certain Saints through the canonization process as being worthy of veneration by the faithful.

So what is a Saint? Put simply, Saints are people who have died and gone to Heaven. While the universal Church has recognized many thousands of people as Saints through canonization, there are likely many billions of other Saints who have not been recognized as such. We don’t ‘make’ anybody a Saint and, on the contrary, we know that there are countless Saints that haven’t been recognized as such by the Church. Sainthood doesn’t flow from the Church an Earth, but from God in Heaven. I wish that some of the reporters writing about these matters would take a five minutes off from studying Kate Middleton’s dress to read the first three paragraphs on the Catholic understanding of Sainthood at Wikipedia and report accordingly.

Of course, I don’t expect secular media outlets to endorse our theology on this—a theology that, despite its provenience in the very earliest days of Christianity, has since been rejected even by many Christians—but they could at least add a brief explanation of what we believe is happening. I seem to remember learning in Journalism 101 that accuracy and completeness were important parts of reporting. Shame. Read on for the truth about the history of the veneration of the Saints, and the process by which people are canonized today.


Christians have professed a belief in the communion with Saints in Heaven since Biblical times. The Apostle’s Creed, a distillation of Christian theology that dates definitively from 390AD but is believed to have existed as early as 180AD, expresses belief in the ‘communion of Saints’ among our central doctrines. We believe that all Christians—here on Earth, undergoing purification in Purgatory, and triumphant in Heaven—are connected together in a very real way by our faith in Jesus Christ. We can pray for the souls in Purgatory, just as we pray for each other here on Earth. The Saints do the same in Heaven, praying for the souls on Earth and in Purgatory, and they do so with much more effectiveness because of their perfect purity and their presence with God.

While never explicitly stated in Holy Scripture, there are several passages that point to this belief. It didn’t poof into existence out of nothing, nor was it fabricated centuries later by some evil Catholics (as even some of our own Christian brethren now accuse, despite all of the historical evidence). Writing to the Church in Rome, St. Paul says that, “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39, RSV, emphasis added). If neither life or death separates us from the love of God, then it follows that for those who embrace that love, neither death or life will separate us from each other in our Christian communion. St. John writes in the Book of the Apocalypse (Revelation) of the prayers of the Saints, saying, “And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints . . . ” (Revelation 5:8, RSV, emphasis added).

The process of formal canonization developed in a very natural, unorganized way. When holy people would die, often through martyrdom in those early days, local Christians would venerate them and hold them up as examples for emulation by the faithful. The local Churches would keep relics of the Saints—bones, clothing, writings, etc.—and build shrines to them to encourage lay devotion. Knowing that others’ prayers are efficacious—otherwise what would be the point of praying for each other here on Earth?—praying to the Saints and asking their intercession was a key part of this early veneration and devotion to the Saints. Among those early Saints were the eleven Apostles (Judas excluded, of course) and many of their earliest successors like St. Paul, as well as Sts. Mary and Joseph—Jesus’s mother and stepfather.

Within a few generations, leaders of the Church began to be concerned that the faithful might venerate people who were undeserving. Accordingly, they began to establish more formal procedures. St. Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage who himself died a martyr in 258AD, was an early Church leader whose extensive writings have largely survived to this day. He wrote in one instance to instruct that claims of martyrdom be investigated thoroughly before the martyr should be venerated. In the 4th century, approval of veneration of martyrs will still largely at the local Priests’ discretion, but veneration of non-martyrs (which was becoming more common) had to be approved by a Bishop.

By the 400’s, a formalized process was in-place and fairly consistent across Christendom. St. Augustine of Hippo (who died in 430AD) described it as being driven by the Bishop or Archbishop with authority over the candidate’s home diocese. Evidence was gathered and investigated to determine whether the person in-question was believed to be a Saint and, if so, the matter would be reviewed by the Archbishop and his Suffragen (subordinate) Bishops who would then make a formal determination. Strictly speaking, recognition of Saints was still a local affair, and the determination of the Bishops was only authoritative over that particular Bishop or Archbishop’s diocesan territory. In practice, veneration of some Saints—especially those more well-known—often spread throughout the Christian world with the tacit or explicit permission of the Bishops and Popes.

The direct involvement of the Papacy in matters of canonization didn’t begin until near the end of the first millennium. The first undisputed example of the Pope (Bishop of Rome) canonizing a Saint from outside of his local diocese was the canonization of Saint Udalric by Pope John XV in 993AD. After this, deferring to the authority of the Papacy became more and more the norm in the western Church (the eastern Church, sadly, split off into Eastern Orthodoxy following the Great Schism in 1054). In the western (Catholic) Church, the last canonization by a local Bishop was St. Walter of Pontoise, canonized by Bishop Hugh de Boves in 1153. Authority for canonization was formally reserved to the Pope alone in 1170, by decree of Pope Alexander III, although it had been reserved to the Pope in-practice for about seventeen years already. At this point, the process had finally been normalized so that it could be implemented in a fully standardized, consistent way across the entire Catholic Church.

So, as you can see, the canonization and veneration of worthy Saints is a practice as old as the Church itself. The only thing that changed in the first thousand years of Church history was that the authority for canonization slowly moved up the chain—from the Priests, to the Bishops, then finally to the Pope—in order to ensure a level of consistency in the practice throughout Christendom.

From 1170 to present, the formal procedures of Papal review and canonization continued to develop, but also remained surprisingly stable. Pope Alexander III’s decree established the initial procedure, which was confirmed by Pope Innocent III in 1200 and bears much resemblance to the process still in-place today. Local Church authorities would petition the Pope for a canonization, providing detailed descriptions of the candidate, testimonies of miracles associated with him, details about his life and writings, and so on for review by the Pope’s officials. Soon thereafter, rules were modified to require eyewitness accounts of alleged miracles. Pope Julius II established a clear delineation between two stages of veneration, beatification and canonization, in 1512. In 1588, Pope Sixtus V established an office under his authority—the Congregation of Rites—with responsibility for the canonization process, and this was codified by Pope Benedict XIV in the 1700’s.

This body was reorganized into the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in 1969, and then the process was further formalized into that described below by Blessed Pope John Paul II in 1983.

The Modern Canonization Process

There are four stages in the modern canonization process in-place since 1983:

  • Like the ancient process, the modern canonization process begins with the local Bishop. The Bishop may declare a person to be a ‘Servant of God’ and formally request that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints make an investigation. This title simply means that the candidate is being investigated, and does not authorize any veneration of the candidate beyond the local diocese. This is the first step in the formal canonization process, and usually can begin at any time at least five years after the candidate’s death (although this waiting period can be waived by the Pope, as it was in the case of Blessed Pope John Paul II).
  • Once the Congregation has taken up an investigation, the Pope may proclaim a candidate to be ‘Venerable.’ This simply means that, following the initial stages of investigation, the candidate has been found to have lived a life of ‘heroic virtue,’ specifically referring to the Theological Virtues of faith, hope, and charity and the Cardinal Virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Still this does not authorize anything more than local veneration, but it is a good indication that a candidate is well on his way to broader recognition in the universal Church
  • Thirdly, a candidate may be beatified and is then referred to as ‘Blessed.’ This is the recognition accorded to Blessed Pope John Paul II this past Sunday. A candidate can be beatified by the Pope or a delegate with the Pope’s approval, but only after the Congregation has determined and the Pope has confirmed that the candidate has made it to Heaven and can intercede with prayer on behalf of the faithful. In the case of martyrs, this is assumed and need not be conclusively proved. In the case of those who have not been martyred, their presence in Heaven must be confirmed by at least one miracle brought by the candidate’s intercession (more on this below). At this stage of recognition, the candidate may be venerated as there is some level of confidence that they are in Heaven, but they are not placed on the Church-wide calendar of Saints.
  • Lastly, a candidate may be canonized as a ‘Saint’ by the Pope. This is a formal determination by the Church that the candidate is in Heaven, enjoying the Beatific Vision, and may be venerated and honored throughout the universal Church without restriction. The Saint is assigned a feast day (either optional or required) in the Church’s liturgical calendar. In order to be canonized as a Saint, their sanctity must be confirmed by at least one additional miracle (for a total of one for martyrs, or two for non-martyrs) through their intercession after death.

This is, of course, an over-simplified explanation. In truth, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints performs an in-depth study of each candidate, including the body of their writings and teachings, testimonies of people who knew the candidate, in-depth research of purported miracles, and more. Not only must it be determined that the candidate is in Heaven, but it must also be determined that their life is worthy of emulation by the faithful. There are people who made it to Heaven—through a deathbed Baptism, for example—who are not necessarily worthy of veneration or emulation. As such, the canonization process is not one that often moves quickly, except in rare cases where all the pieces fall into place quickly due to the candidate’s holiness and the quick presentation of verifiable miracles. It is not uncommon for candidates to languish for years, or even decades, recognized only as a Servant of God or Venerable before finally being beatified and then canonized.

Despite the impression often given by the media that the process is arbitrary and political, the reality is that the people in the Congregation take their responsibilities very seriously, and will not propose a candidate to move forward unless all of the requirements for the next step have been definitively met. There are plenty of seemingly worthy candidates who have not moved forward. There are others who don’t seem very different but seem to breeze through. From the outside, there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it . . . but we are not privy to the details of the ongoing investigations.

The media also tends to gloss over the part about the miracles, referring to them in vague statements and giving little further attention to them. Miracles attributed to the intercession of the Saints have long been the primary way that the Church on Earth determines with some certainty that a particular person has made it to Heaven, and in modern times we take this element of the investigation very seriously. You can’t just send a letter to the Congregation telling them that you asked Pope John Paul II for a sandwich and one appeared. No, the miracle needs to be provable and independently confirmed.

Miracles in the modern canonization process tend to be related to cures of diseases, but there are other types as well. If somebody claims to have prayed to a candidate and received a cure, the claim is first investigated by the local Diocese and then, if it is found to have merit, it is passed along to the Congregation. It is not, however, accepted at face value. The Congregation then brings in outside experts to review the case, and those experts are selected solely on the basis of their expertise. There is no requirement that the outside experts be Catholic; in fact, they very often aren’t. In the case of an alleged miracle cure, the medical records are reviewed by one or more doctors who had no direct association either with the case or with the Church. Often, the doctors reviewing the case don’t know until after the review is complete what the purpose of the requested review is.

For the miracle cure to be accepted by the Congregation, the independent doctors must confirm, based on a detailed review of the case, that the cure meets certain criteria. As described in 2004 by Monsignor Michele Di Ruberto, the undersecretary of the Congregation for Sainthood Causes, “Their examination and final discussion are concluded by precisely establishing the diagnosis of the illness, the prognosis, the treatment and its solution. To be considered the object of a possible miracle, the cure must be judged by the specialists to have been rapid, complete, lasting and inexplicable, according to present medical-scientific knowledge.”

Cynics may doubt how seriously the Catholic Church takes these claims, and how rigorous the investigations really are. Well, these things aren’t secrets. In fact, you can read what non-religious doctors have to say about the process if you do a little searching. There are some great stories up on the National Post religion blog, including Dr. Jacalyn Duffin—an atheist—who said of the investigators, “They wanted to know if I had a scientific explanation for why this patient was still alive. I realized they weren’t asking me to endorse their beliefs. They didn’t care if I was a believer or not, they cared about the science.”

One Last Misconception

We’ve already dispelled the common misconceptions, continually reinforced by the secular media, that the Catholic Church ‘makes’ people Saints and that we don’t apply rigorous scientific review to the miracles attributed to candidates for canonization. There is one more misconception that keeps coming up, and is rearing its ugly head once more in discussions of Blessed Pope John Paul II. People seem to think that, if the Church canonizes somebody, it means we think that person was perfect, and that we endorse every last little thing that he did.

Let’s be clear here: Every Saint was a sinner in life. Every Saint made mistakes, sometimes grave ones. That Blessed Pope John Paul II has been beatified, and is likely to be canonized at some point in the future, doesn’t mean that he never made errors as Pope or in his life before ascending to the Papacy. For example, I think we can all agree that he could have done more as Pope to prevent child abuse by Priests and punish those who had been caught committing these horrific acts (although I take issue with the argument, mostly brought forth by avowed anti-Catholics, that he ‘aided and abetted’ abusers—a slander completely contradicted by all of the evidence). This does not mean that he wasn’t a holy man. This does not mean that he isn’t a Saint, or that he shouldn’t be recognized as one by the Church. It simply means he was an imperfect human being who could have done some things better than he did, just like every single other Saint (canonized or not).

In Blessed Pope John Paul II’s case, he has been proposed for canonization because he was a holy man despite his flaws, and because of the immense contribution he made to the theological and moral life of the Church in the face of a world that was (and still is) rapidly losing its moral compass. He was a brilliant theologian and philosopher who got much less credit than he deserved from the secular community. Reading his encyclicals and other works can be truly enlightening for those willing to open their minds and actually consider what he had to say, rather than dismissing his work outright for being out-of-step with the world’s standard of hedonism and self-centeredness. We can and should look to him as an example, but no, he was not perfect.

O Holy Trinity,
we thank you for having given to the Church
Pope John Paul II,
and for having made him shine with your fatherly tenderness,
the glory of the Cross of Christ and the splendor of the Spirit of love

He, trusting completely in your infinite mercy
and in the maternal intercession of Mary, has shown himself
in the likeness of Jesus the Good Shepherd
and has pointed out to us holiness
as the path to reach eternal communion with You.

Grant us, through his intercession,
according to your will, the grace that we implore,
in the hope that he will soon be numbered among your saints.

(Prayer for the intercession of Pope John Paul II)

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.