How to Become a Saint in the Catholic Church
First of all, a clarification: The Catholic Church doesn’t make saints like Hollywood makes movie stars. Catholics saints are men and women who lived holy lives in obedience to God’s will, and they became saints at the moment they entered heaven. However, the Church does recognize those souls that the Church can confirm are in heaven as saints.
The process for being declared a saint is ancient, traditional, and often mysterious. Evidence must be presented to persuade Church officials that the person in question in fact lived a virtuous life, had faith, and had the support and help of God. The Church also looks at miracles as evidence that God is working through that person.
Stages on the road to sainthood
Usually, the process of recognizing a saint starts no earlier than five years after a person’s death. Usually, the potential saint’s pastor presents the case to the bishop. Specific stages are met on the path to being declared a saint:
- Servant of God: As soon as the person is accepted for consideration, she’s called a Servant of God.
- Venerable: After the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints determines that the servant of God lived a life of heroic virtue, she is granted the title of venerable. Heroic virtue doesn’t mean a person was perfect or sinless, but that she worked aggressively to improve herself spiritually and never gave up trying to be better and grow in holiness.
- Blessed: After the Church establishes one miracle, the venerable person’s cause is presented to the pope to see whether he deems her worthy of being called blessed. This step is called beatification and is the next-to-last step.
- *Saint: Another miracle and the blessed person’s cause is presented to the pope again for his judgment. If he determines that the evidence is clear and that contrary reports aren’t credible, he may initiate the canonization procedure. If all goes well, the candidate is publicly recognized as a saint.
Only people whose existence can be verified and whose lives can be examined are possible candidates for canonization. Candidates for sainthood undergo an investigation:
- Informative inquiries are made into the person’s life, reputation, and activities while they lived on earth
- Proof that no one has proclaimed or is already proclaiming and honoring the person as a saint before it’s been officially declared
- A thorough examination of the person’s written and spoken (transcripts) works
If the thorough background check leads the investigators to declare the candidate venerable, evidence of miracles attributed to the candidate’s intercession with God is sought. Miracles need to be documented and authenticated, so eyewitnesses alone are considered insufficient. Medical, scientific, psychiatric, and theological experts are consulted, and evidence is given to them for their professional opinion. If a scientific, medical, or psychological explanation exists for what had only appeared to be a miracle, then it isn’t an authentic miracle. Only immediate, spontaneous, and inexplicable phenomena are up for consideration as authentic miracles.
A group of Italian doctors (Consulta Medica) examine the healing miracles. Some of the doctors aren’t Catholic and some are, but all are qualified and renowned physicians. They don’t declare a healing a miracle, but instead say, “We can find no scientific or medical explanation for the cure.”
Besides miraculous healings, the commission examines other phenomena:
- Incorruptibility: Long after the saint is dead, the body is found free of decay when exhumed from the grave. The Church considers St. Catherine of Siena to be an example. She died in 1380, and 600 years later without any embalming, her flesh hasn’t decomposed.
- *Liquefaction: The dried blood of the saint, long dead, miraculously liquefies on the feast day. The Church considers St. Januarius (San Gennaro in Italian; A.D. 275?–305), the patron saint of Naples, to be an example. According to the Church, a vial of his dried blood liquefies every year on September 19.
- Odor of sanctity: The body of the saint exudes a sweet aroma, like roses, rather than the usual pungent stench of decay. The Church considers St. Teresa of Avila (1515–82) to be just such an example. The Church believes her grave exuded a sweet fragrance for nine months after her death.
The pope alone decides who is publicly recognized as a saint in churches all over the world and gets a feast day.
The actual act of beatification, in which a person is declared blessed, or of canonization, which is officially recognizing a saint, usually takes place in St. Peter’s Square outside the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica. Sometimes, though, the pope beatifies and canonizes in the country where the person lived and died, as in the case of St. Juan Diego. He was an Aztec peasant, and the Church believes Mary, as Our Lady of Guadalupe, appeared to him in Mexico in 1531. In his case, 12,000 people were present in the Basilica in Mexico City, and 30,000 waited outside, watching on video monitors.