Pope Francis has created a new category for beatification, the level immediately below sainthood, in the Catholic Church: those who give their lives for others. This is called “oblatio vitae,” the “offer of life” for the well-being of another person.
Martyrs, a special category of saint, also offer up their lives, but they do so for their “Christian faith.” And so, the pope’s decision raises the question: Is the Catholic understanding of sainthood changing?
Who’s a ‘saint’?
Most people use the word “saint” to refer to someone who is exceptionally good or “holy.” In the Catholic Church, however, a “saint” has a more specific meaning: someone who has led a life of “heroic virtue.”
This definition includes the four “cardinal” virtues: prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice; as well as the “theological” virtues: faith, hope and charity. A saint displays these qualities in a consistent and exceptional way.
When someone is proclaimed a saint by the pope – which can happen only after death – public devotion to the saint, called a “cultus,” is authorized for Catholics throughout the world.
The process for being named a saint in the Catholic Church is called “canonization,” the word “canon” meaning an authoritative list. Persons who are named “saints” are listed in the “canon” as saints and given a special day, called a “feast,” in the Catholic calendar.
Before approximately the year 1000, saints were named by the local bishop. For example, St. Peter the Apostle and St. Patrick of Ireland were considered “saints” long before any formal procedures had been established. But as the papacy increased its power, it claimed the exclusive authority to name a saint.
Today there are four stages in canonization.
Any Catholic or group of Catholics can request that the bishop open a case. They will need to name a formal intermediary, called the “postulator,” who will promote the cause of the saint. At this point, the candidate is called “a servant of God.”
A formal investigation examines “servant of God’s” life. Those who knew the candidate are interviewed, and affidavits for and against the candidate are reviewed. Also, the candidate’s writings – if any exist – are examined for consistency with Catholic doctrine. A “promoter of justice” named by the local bishop ensures that proper procedures are followed and a notary certifies the documentation.
The proceedings of the investigation, called “Acta” or “The Acts,” are forwarded to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints in Rome. The Congregation for the Causes of the Saints is large, with a prefect, a secretary, undersecretary and a staff of 23 people. There are also over 30 cardinals and bishops associated with the congregation’s work at various stages.
The Congregation for the Causes of the Saints appoints a “relator” (one of five who currently work for the congregation) who supervises the postulator in writing a position paper called a “positio.” The positio argues for the virtues of the servant of God and can be thousands of pages long. The congregation examines the positio and members vote “yes” or “no” on the cause. “Yes” votes must be unanimous.
The final decision lies with the pope. When he signs a “Decree of Heroic Virtue,” the person becomes “venerable.” Then two stages remain: beatification and sainthood.
Throughout most of Catholic history, the canonization process was rigorous. One of the key figures in the investigation in the Vatican was the “devil’s advocate,” who functioned like an opposing attorney by challenging the candidate’s holiness. This is the origin of the often-used English phrase referring to someone who takes a position to challenge another person to prove a point more fully.
Few people have received the title of “saint,” although there are more than 10,000 that the Catholic Church venerates. Even 15th-century famous spiritual writer German Thomas à Kempis didn’t make it through the process. His body was exhumed and examined during his case for sainthood. There are stories that there were scratch marks on the inside of his coffin and splinters of wood under his fingernails. These discoveries suggested an escape attempt after being buried alive. The issue would have been that Thomas à Kempis did not peacefully accept death as a saint should. His case did not move forward.
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