Saints and Beati

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The veneration of saints, beginning with the cult of martyrs, has been a hallmark of the Catholic tradition from the earliest days of the Church. Between the sixth and tenth centuries, the number of deceased who received honor as saints notably increased. A reputation for a holy life, a great spirit of charity, and especially a report of miracles were the only requirements for sainthood in those early days. New names were added to the calendars and martyrologies; the number of feasts rapidly grew; and lives of the saints, often legendary, were written.

In the early medieval period popular fame or the vox populi proved to be an inadequate criterion for sanctity. Abuses crept in, and ecclesiastical authorities gradually introduced more formal procedures, first by local bishops, later by Roman pontiffs. The first papal canonization for which there is documentary evidence was that of St. Udairicus in 973. Pope Gregory IX formulated procedural norms (1234) that guided inquiries into a person's reputation for sanctity. In the sixteenth century when Pope Sixtus V reorganized the Roman curia with the constitution

Immensa aeterni Dei (1588), he entrusted the task of overseeing the canonization process to the Congregation of Rites. The congregation developed procedures and norms that lasted into the pontificate of Pope Urban VIII. In 1642 Pope Urban codified the decrees governing the canonization of saints in a single volume under the title Urbani VIII Pont. O.M. decreta servanda in canonizatione et beatificatione sanctorum. In the following century Pope Benedict XIV wrote a masterful treatise that set the norms for centuries to come. De Servorum Dei beatificatione et Beatorum canonizatione explained in a clear and definitive manner the principles and methods governing the processes of beatification and canonization and clarified the fundamental concept of the heroic degree of virtue.

The 1918 Code of Canon Law summarized the juridical and administrative procedures in the beatification and canonization of saints (cc. 19992141). The 1983 Code says simply, "The causes of the canonization of the servants of God are regulated by special pontifical law"(c.1403). Pope Paul VI issued two documents on the subject. Sanctitas clarior (1969) was a step in implementing Vatican II's constitution Lumen gentium (nos. 40, 47,50). It clarified the competencies and procedures of bishops with regard to the introduction of causes of servants of God for beatification. Sacra rituum congregatio divided the Congregation of Rites into two congregations, one for Divine Worship and the other for the Causes of Saints. The new Congregation for the Causes of Saints included an office with historiographic and hagiographic functions.

Pope John Paul II's apostolic constitution Divinus perfectionis magister (Jan. 25, 1983) and the respective Normae servandae in inquisitionibus ab episcopis faciendis in causis sanctorum (Feb. 7, 1983) reformed the procedures for promoting the cause of a saint and restructured the congregation. The constitution enlarged the role of local ordinaries in saints' causes by giving them the right to initiate investigations into the lives, virtues, martyrdom, veneration, and asserted miracles for the candidate. It also assigned to the congregation a college of relators whose task is to assist with the drafting of the Positiones super vita et virtutibus (o super martyrio) of the servant of God.

John Paul II has called on the Church "to foster the recognition of the heroic virtues of men and women who have lived their Christian vocation in marriage" and to honor Christ by acknowledging his "presence through the fruits of faith, hope and charity present in men and women of many different tongues and races who have followed Christ in various forms of Christian vocation" (Tertio millennio adveniente, no. 37). The new saints and blesseds represent all walks of life from peasant to royalty; laity, religious, and the ordained; artists, children, farmers, founders, scientists, scholarsin short, the whole gamut of human experience.

Announcing the Jubilee 2000, John Paul II placed special emphasis on the person of the martyr, noting that at the end of the second millennium, "The Church has once again become a Church of the martyrs" (ibid.). The majority of those raised to the altars are martyrs who died primarily in the twentieth century during periods of civil unrest and religious persecution, including World War II, the Spanish Civil War, and the Mexican Revolution. The increased number of beatification and canonizations in the last century manifests the vitality of the local Churches (ibid.). The pope sees these canonizations and beatifications as an instrument for the evangelization of local churches and as a sign of the universal call to salvation and holiness.

See Also: beatification; canonization of saints (history and procedures).

[k. i. rabenstein/eds.]