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Canonization of Saints (History and Procedure)


Canonization is a solemn declaration by the pope in which a deceased member of the faithful is proposed as a model and intercessor to the Christian faithful and venerated as a saint on the basis of having lived a life of heroic virtue or having remained faithful to God through martyrdom [W. J. Levada, "Glossary," Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2d ed. (Washington 2000)].

History. The faithful of the primitive Church believed that martyrs were perfect Christians and saints since in imitation of Christ they had shown the supreme proof of charity by giving their lives for the sake of the Gospel and the good of the Church; by their sufferings they had attained eternal life and were perfectly conformed to Christ, the Head of the Mystical Body. The faithful invoked their intercession before God to obtain on earth the grace to imitate the martyrs in their unquestioning and complete profession of faith.

From its very beginning, the remembrance of the martyrs had the characteristics typical of a true veneration. It was distinguished clearly from the memory of other deceased persons in that the date and place of martyrdom or of the martyr's burial were held sacred not only by relatives but by the whole Christian community and the anniversary of their martyrdom was added to the public calendar of the Church. Furthermore, whereas the usual commemoration of the dead was marked by a sense of mourning and intercession for eternal rest of the deceased, the remembrance of the martyrs evidenced a feeling of joy and the conviction that being united to Christ they were now intercessors on behalf of the living.

Toward the end of the great Roman persecutions, this phenomenon of veneration, formerly reserved to

martyrs, was extended to those confessors who, without dying for the faith, had nonetheless defended it and suffered for it (confessores fidei ). Within a short time, this same veneration was extended to those who had been outstanding for their exemplary Christian life especially in austerity and penance (ascetics), as well as those who had excelled in Catholic doctrine (doctors) or in apostolic zeal (bishops and missionaries).

Episcopal Canonization. Between the sixth and tenth centuries, the number of deceased who were included in the cult of the saints notably increased. The faithful were often satisfied with the reputation of a holy life or with an extraordinary spirit of charity, and, most of all, the fame of miracles. New names were added to liturgical calendars and martyrologies; the number of feasts rapidly increased; often lives, legendary in character, were written. As a consequence, abuses arose that required correction. The urgent need of regulating this matter, so important in the life of the Church, called for a certain uniformity of practice.

In the first centuries the popular fame or the vox populi, sometimes called canonization by acclamation, represented the only criterion by which a person's holiness was ascertained. A new element was gradually introduced,

namely, the intervention of ecclesiastical authority, i.e., of the competent bishop. However, the fame of sanctity, as a result of which the faithful piously visited the person's tomb, invoked his intercession and proclaimed the healing effects of it, remained the starting point of those enquiries that culminated with a definite pronouncements on the part of the bishop. A biography of the deceased person and a history of his alleged miracles were presented to the bishop. Following a judgment of approval, the body was exhumed and transferred to an altar. Finally, a day was assigned for the celebration of the liturgical feast within the diocese or province.

Through a gradual multiplication of interventions by the Roman pontiffs, papal canonization developed a more definite structure and juridical value. Procedural norms were formulated and such canonical processes became the main avenue of investigation into the saint's life and miracles. Under Gregory IX this practice became the only legitimate form of inquiry (1234). From this time on, papal canonization acquired an exclusive and more distinguished value. Further developments of this doctrinal and historical process were contained in the provisions of the constitution Immensae aeternae Dei, promulgated by Sixtus V in 1588. This document provided the guidelines for a new organization of the work of the Roman Curia. The task of preparing papal canonizations was entrusted to the Congregation of Rites. During the period of transition, from 1588 to 1642, the Congregation developed its own method of action and uniform practice. In 1642, Urban VIII ordered a single volume to be issued that would contain all the decrees and subsequent interpretations on the canonization of saints promulgated during his pontificate. The work appeared under the title Urbani VIII Pont. O. M. Decreta servanda in canonizatione et beatificatione sanctorum.

In the following century, when Benedict XIV wrote his masterly treatise De Servorum Dei beatificatione et Beatorum canonizatione, he relied heavily on the experience of the Congregation of Rites. He illustrated, in a clear and definitive manner, all the elements that had been used in these processes and clarified the fundamental concept of the heroic degree of virtue.

Procedure. The reform of the formal process for beatification and canonization was begun when in 1913 St. Pius X divided the Congregation of Rites into two departments: one to deal with matters liturgical and the other devoted to the canonization of saints. While not completely taken up into the 1917 Code of Canon Law, this division of labor was affirmed by Pius XI in the 1930 creation of a historical section to the Congregation of Rites (Gia da qualche tempo, Feb. 6, 1930) and definitely established by the motu proprio Sanctitatis clarior (Mar. 191969) of Paul VI which created two new dicasteries in place of the one Sacred Congregation of Rites, namely, the Sacred Congregation of Rites and the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints. A complete revision of the norms for canonization, set in motion by Paul VI, was completed during the pontificate of John Paul II and promulgated by the apostolic letter Divinus perfectionis magister (Jan. 25, 1983) which provides directives for the organization and working of the Congregation and norms for carrying our the process for canonization. The norms published by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in that same year (Normae servandae in Inquisitionibus ab Episcopis faciendis in Causis Sanctorum, Feb. 7,1983) and the new Code of Canon Law complete the modern legislation governing causes for sainthood.

Structure of the Process. The 1983 norms were formulated in the light of modern notions of history, contemporary methods of research and newly available means of communication. The process for canonization is conducted in two distinct phases, namely, the diocesan and the Roman or apostolic. Following the death of a person who has lived an exemplary Christian life and enjoys a reputation for holiness (fama sanctitatis ) or for martyrdom (fama martyrii ) any Catholic, even the bishop himself, can initiate a formal process for canonization. The diocesan phase is guided by the "Norms to be Observed in Inquiries Made by Bishops in the Causes of Saints" (Normae, Feb. 7, 1983). These norms, read in the context of the procedural law of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, provide a clear outline for the diocesan investigation. It is the diocesan bishop who formally opens the cause and conducts the "instruction" (instructio ), as it is called, of a canonization process within his own diocese, ordinarily the place where the candidate for sainthood died.

A cause is considered "recent" if the virtues or martyrdom of the candidate for sainthood can be proved through the deposition of eye-witnesses. Such a cause can only begin five years after the death of the servant of God. An "ancient" cause, sometimes referred to as "historical," is one wherein the proofs for martyrdom or virtues can be brought to light only from written sources. There is no time limit for ancient causes.

Central to the entire process of canonization is the person of the postulator. While requiring the approval of the bishop, the postulator is formally appointed by the "actor," that is, the person or group that presents the cause to the local bishop and that agrees to bear the moral and financial responsibility for the cause. The primary task of the postulator is to oversee the investigations into the life, work and holiness of the servant of God, and to provide evidence to the bishop of the authenticity of the cause and its importance for the Church. Once the diocesan phase is completed the postulator continues in his role during the apostolic process and must take up residence in Rome where he collaborates with the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in the creation of the Positio, a printed volume that contains a lengthy exposition of the life and virtue of the servant of God, that, in effect, becomes the formal argument for canonization.

Diocesan phase. The purpose of the diocesan process is to gather information and documentation regarding the life, work and holiness of the candidate sufficient to prove the validity of the petition for canonization and to uncover both the positive and negative aspects of the life and virtue of the servant of God, a title permitted once the formal process has begun. For the cause to advance, all the candidate's published writings must be submitted to the judgment of two theological censors, appointed by the bishop, regarding matters of doctrine and moral teaching. The other writings by or about the servant of God are gathered and reviewed by a historical commission, also established by the bishop and their judgment, particularly in ancient causes, is an important element in bringing the diocesan process to a successful conclusion. The focus of this investigation is the quality of the life and virtue of the man or woman under consideration. Did the person persevere in the Christian faith until death? Did the candidate live a life of heroic virtue? Clear evidence must be available that the individual exhibited a life of faith, hope and charity beyond that expected of the ordinary Christian.

The deposition of witnesses must be carried out carefully under the watchful eye of the promoter for justice, another appointment by the local bishop, who supervises the entire diocesan process for canonical accuracy and faithful adherence to the norms. The bishop, or his delegate, must personally ensure that the diocesan process is properly carried out because "a positive outcome of a cause depends to a great extent on his good instruction." (Norms, no. 27).

It falls to the bishop as well to investigate the possible existence of any public cult of devotion to the candidate that may be contrary to the norms of the Church. For this reason, prior to closing the diocesan process, the tomb of the servant of God, the room in which the servant of God lived or died and any other place where there might be a display of public cult must be visited and examined.

The results of this complex process must be gathered together to form the "acts" of the diocesan cause of canonization. The original copy of the acts is kept sealed in the archives of the diocese. Two authenticated copies of the acts, together with copies of the published works of the servant of God, are forwarded to Rome, one to be kept in the archives of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and the other to serve as the "public copy" available to those responsible for composing the Positio.

This focus on the diocesan process under the leadership and supervision of the bishop is the most significant change from earlier legislation regarding causes for canonization. The second phase is completely under the direction of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome.

Roman or apostolic phase. When the acts of the diocesan process have been delivered to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints they are carefully examined for their fidelity to the norms of law. Once declared "valid," a "relator" is named for the cause. The relator, an official of the Congregation, studies a particular cause in detail and collaborates with an assistant from outside the Congregation, often the postulator, in creating the Positio according to the accepted norms for Christian hagiography.

The Positio includes the Informatio and the Summarium. The Informatio is the clear and systematic exposition of the life and virtue of the servant of God. The theological and moral virtues form a structure or outline for presenting the evidence for heroic virtue or for martyrdom. The Summarium is a summary of the depositions of witnesses questioned on specific points during the diocesan investigation. This structure is aimed at demonstrating that the life of the servant of God, particularly the non-martyr, was so governed by the demands of Christian charity towards God and neighbor that in daily life the theological and moral virtues were practiced in an exemplary and heroic manner. If the subject of the cause is a martyr, the report is intended to prove that the servant of God was killed because of his or her Christian faith, in odium fidei and that the servant of God intended to offer his life for Christ and for his Church.

The "promoter for the faith," another official of the Congregation, serves as an overseer in the examination of the cause by the historical and theological consultants to whom the Positio may be submitted for evaluation and judgment. In ancient causes, the judgment of historical consultants precedes that of the theological experts. At this point in the process any controversial theological questions must be examined thoroughly.

The opinions of the experts, together with the written report of the promoter for the faith, are submitted to cardinals and bishops who make up the formal membership of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Their judgment is then forwarded to the pope for his judgment. Ordinarily, a "decree of heroic virtue" is the first formal step towards beatification. In this declaration the Church recognizes the extraordinary virtue of the servant of God and the title "venerable servant of God" is used when speaking of the candidate. The pope alone makes the decision regarding beatification and canonization.

Miracles Required for Canonization. As the Church discerns the holiness of life of a servant of God through the process of research, historical study and theological reflection, the decision to beatify or canonize a non-martyr requires a confirmation on the part of God, a miracle. One miracle is required to proceed to beatification and another to proceed from beatification to canonization. Divine intervention in a miracle, the "finger of God" (digitus Dei ) points out, as it were, the authenticity of the holiness of the servant of God and the correct judgment of the Church. When miracles occur in connection with the intercession of the particular candidate whom some of the faithful have invoked in prayer, the Church sets about an investigation similar in structure to the process for the life and virtue of the servant of God already described, to discover whether God has indeed performed this extraordinary act and whether it can by truly ascribed to the intercession of this candidate for sainthood.

In the case of martyrs no miracle is required for beatification or canonization. This is because the very act of sacrificing one's life is seen as proof of heroic virtue, the perfection of charity. "Greater love than this no one has, than to lay down one's life for one's friend." From the earliest days of the Church the martyr has been considered as one who is given immediate entry into heaven.

The "instruction" of a reported miracle, while following the same structure as the earlier diocesan process concerning the life of virtue, must be carried out separately. In the late 20th and early 21st century, the majority of reported miracles are healings. All of the medical evidence, the eye-witness reports and the documentation, often voluminous given modern medical procedures and technology, must be gathered and carefully reviewed by a medical expert who is part of the diocesan process. The Church does not ask of such experts a theological judgment (that is, whether or not this is a miracle) but a scientific judgment. Is there any medical or scientific explanation for this cure or this change in a person's physical condition? It is the theologians who make the theological judgment.

If the conclusion of the diocesan process is positive, the acts are forwarded to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints just as in the case of the investigation into the life and virtue of the servant of God. The examination of the diocesan acts of a reported miracle undergoes a rigorous scrutiny within the Roman Congregation. In addition to the theological consideration, a college of medical experts is employed to carefully review the account of the reported miracle and the documentation provided. Again a medical/scientific opinion is rendered and presented in a General Congregation, that is, a meeting of all the bishop and cardinal members of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. A positive judgment suggests that "it is possible to safely proceed to the beatification of the servant of God."

Beatification. Although it is not mentioned in the current norms for canonization or in the Code of Canon Law, beatification is, in fact, required before the nonmartyr can be declared a saint by canonization. When the pope declares someone "blessed," conferring that title on a venerable servant of God, he declares that for the pastoral good of the Church this person is worthy of emulation and can enjoy a public cult of praise within the confines of a particular diocese, region or religious family.

Once the decision for beatification is announced, the postulator of the cause must supervise the opening of the tomb of the venerable servant and take a portion of the remains to be presented to the Holy Father during the ceremony of beatification as a "relic" of the newly beatified. Thus begins the public cult of authentic relics for this candidate for canonization. In addition, the Holy See authorizes a proper prayer to be used in celebrations of the Eucharist or the Liturgy of the Hours on the feast of the new beatus.

The beatification is normally celebrated in Rome at St. Peter's basilica within a Pontifical Mass. After the penitential rite and before the Gloria, the bishop who instructed the cause, together with the postulator, makes a formal request for the beatification of the venerable servant of God. After a brief biography of the candidate is read, the pope makes the solemn pronouncement enrolling the venerable servant among the blessed and assigns a date for the annual feast day within the proper region, diocese or religious community. The congregation responds "Amen." The relics of the newly named blessed are then brought forward, the bishop makes a formal statement of thanks to the pope and the sign of peace is exchanged between the pontiff, the bishop and the postulator. The Mass continues with the Gloria in usual manner.

Canonization. The progression from beatification to canonization requires a second miracle that must be "instructed" in the same manner as the first miracle. Once a reported miracle has been successfully instructed, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints informs the pope of their positive votum with regard to the canonization of a particular blessed. The pope is not bound to move forward to canonization, but would ordinarily do so. Canonization is the goal of all causes and represents the definitive declaration on the part of the Church that the one to be canonized is before the throne of God in heaven and the public cult of the new saint is formally extended to the universal Church. The bull of canonization infallibly declares the exemplariness of the saint's life and recognizes his or her role as a heavenly intercessor.

As with the beatification, the ceremonies of canonization normally take place in Rome at St. Peter's basilica within a Pontifical Mass. Inserted between the penitential rite and the Gloria, this simple ceremony is marked by great solemnity. The prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, together with the postulator, makes the formal request for canonization. Once the short biography of the blessed servant of God is read, the litany of the saints is sung. This is followed by the solemn pronouncement of sainthood by the pope and the congregation responds "Amen." The prefect makes a formal act of thanks to the pontiff and the sign of peace is exchanged with the bishop and the postulator.

See Also: saints and beati.

Bibliography: l. hertling, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. m. viller et al. (Paris 1932) 2:7785. h. delehaye, Les Origines du culte des martyrs (2d ed. Brussels 1933); Sanctus: Essai sur le culte des saints dans l'antiquite (Brussels 1927). f. gagna, De processu canonizationis a primis ecclesiae saeculis usque ad Codicem juris canonici (Rome 1940). g. giaquinta, Ricerche sull'istituto giuridico della canonizzatione dale origini alle decretali di Gregorio IX (Rome 1947). a. vauchez, Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge 1997). f. antonelli, De inquisitione medico-legali super miraculis in causes beatificationis at canonizationis (Rome 1962). k. woodward, Making Saints (New York 1996). f. veraja, Le Cause di Canonizatione dei Santi: Commento alla Legislatione e Guida Pratica (Rome 1992). r. rodrigo, Manuale per Istruire I Processi di Canonizatione (2d ed. Rome 1998).

[p. molinari

g. b. o'donnell]

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