Making Saints

by Bill Dodds

Domestic-Church.Com - Articles - Making A Saint

Tour guides, with their tag along tails of tired tourists, are everywhere in Rome. One was overheard in Saint Peter's explaining to her group, respectfully clustered at the rail of a chapel, that the remains visible in the glass-sided altar "Are not stuff-ed. Is real body." She then whirled to face her group, and pointed her finger at them emphatically, "BUT! In Catholic Church, is not enough to make a saint."

This article by Bill Dodds explains what the Catholic Church considers, "enough to make a saint."

It's easy to make the mistake of thinking that the way the Roman Catholic Church does things now is the exactly the way it's always been done. But that just isn't so. Especially when it comes to how saints are made.

Of course, the Church has never 'made' saints; rather it recognizes in a particular and formal way those men, women and children who, through the grace of God, have led lives of heroic virtue.

In fact, how the Church does that, thc process it uses, has undergone some major modifications in our own time. It's that revised system which is being used to examine the cause of Father Michael J. McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus.

Obviously, how saints are "canonized" in the 21st century isn't the method used in the early Church. It wasn't until the end of the first millennium that the pope was seen as the final decision-maker. And even then, it was hundreds of years before that policy was more firmly in place throughout the West.

The Early Years

During the first three centuries of Christianity it was relatively easy for the local community to recognize a ~hagioi~ - a saint or holy one - because that person was also a martyr. There were many of them because Christianity was against Roman law.

The remnants of their torn bodies were gathered up by the community and considered treasures. Their tombs became sites at which the community prayed. Shrines were built there. Later, these became chapels, then churches and, finally in some cases, great basilicas.

It was after the Edict of Milan in 313, when Emperor Constantine declared Christianity was no longer outlawed, that saint-making became more difficult. How was a community to know that a person was a saint if he or she hadn't died for the faith? How were they to choose who was to be "canonized" - that is, on the "canon" or list of saints?

A second category was needed. Those who were not martyrs were "confessors." That didn't mean someone taking advantage of the sacrament of reconciliation, but someone proclaiming to all in word and deed his belief in Jesus. Then, too, these saints could be recognized not just by how they lived, but by miracles attributed to them after they died.

A Growing, Changing Church

As the Church grew and spread to new lands, it was the local bishop who oversaw the development of a shrine, church or basilica built over the tomb of a holy one. It was the local bishop who examined any reported miracles and supervised the moving of the body to the new facility. At that time, this "translation" was the sign of canonization and a saint was given a feast day on the local liturgical calendar.

The process still began at the grassroots level, with the people recognizing the special holiness of the deceased. But it became more and more obvious that if a saint was to be universally recognized then some sort of universal system and method of judgment needed to be established.

The clear choice for handling that was the pope. Pope John XV approved the first papal canonization of Bishop Ulrich of Augsburg in 993, using a method that, over time, came to resemble a court case. There were "petitioners," "procurators" and "promoters of the faith." That last position became more commonly known as "the devil's advocate," not because he was in cahoots with Satan but because his job was to be a stickler, making sure the arguments, proofs and signs brought forward were authentic. In other words, the devil's advocate wanted to make sure the so-called saint was really a saint.

The steps to canonization - declaring someone a "Servant of God" and then "Blessed" prior to sainthood - were established. So were the requirements regarding miracles, that ultimate divine intervention on the person's behalf.

In the 18th century, Pope Benedict XIV penned five volumes on beatification and canonization, and his work remained the foundation of the process for some 200 years. It became part of the Code of Canon Law in 1917, and in 1930 Pope Pius XI set up a historical section to handle ancient cases (some pending for centuries) and lingering problems that needed special attention.

It was during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), under Pope Paul VI, that a commission started looking more closely at the method the Church was using. Pope John Paul II finished the reorganization in 1983.

That's the system used today. While it would be flip to describe it as "new and improved," the new design has streamlined the method by replacing that adversarial courtroom approach with one which is more research based. That doesn't mean any corners are cut. Rather, the process is more efficient. That's one of the reasons why John Paul II has beatified and canonized more people than any other pope.

Steps to Sainthood

In our own time, because the pope plays such a prominent role in canonization, it's tempting to think the process begins and ends at the Vatican. It doesn't. Yes, the pope makes the final decision but, just as in the early Church, the process starts locally

In very simple terms, these are the steps that lead to canonization:

1. It begins with a local community, a religious order, an organization (such as the Knights of Columbus) asking themselves if one of their own might indeed have been a saint.

He (or she) may have been a wonderful person, but that's not nearly enough. Unless he was a martyr (and, yes, there are still martyrs for the faith), he has to have been more than virtuous. More than a good guy. More even than a really good guy. He must have demonstrated "heroic virtue." He must have demonstrated an abundance of faith, hope and love, of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.

2. There has to be grassroots support for the idea. If only one or two people are saying this should be considered, well, that's the end of that. Why? Because - going back to public acclamation in the very early Church - if there is no public acclaiming, there is no saint.

3. So the people who knew him or now know of him get together and agree that he just might have been a saint. In the case of the Knights, it's the Father McGivney Guild. That little group could make a private pilgrimage to his grave site and have some memorial cards printed up. This ad hoc committee could also ask people to pray that he be canonized and suggest people pray to him for help in their own lives. That's just what the members of the Father McGivney Guild are doing now.

4. Now it could be a big boost if the candidate had been responsible for some miracles when he was alive, but that's not mandatory. Even if he had been, those events would have to be carefully examined and documented further along in the canonization process. But word of his miracles while he was alive or of his interceding after his death can attract others to the group, especially those who don't know about him.

5. What this group is doing is creating a cult - a devotion - that centers on him. But this is a private devotion. That's very, very important. At this point, his devotees can meet and pray in homes or in the cemetery but not in church. That would make what they're doing a public devotion.

6. The group wants to hang on to his belongings. All of it, everything he owned and used, will be a relic later in the process.

7. The group needs to get the local bishop on board. He's the one who decides, "Say, we ought to look into this." Of course, it could be a long time after that person's death before that happens. In the case of Father McGivney, more than 100 years went by between his death and the formal opening of his cause. In the case of Mother Teresa, just a few months lapsed between her death and the opening of her cause.

8. After it gets into the bishop's hands, it's out of the group's. Sort of. There's still the matter of finances. The group can't buy a canonization, but getting someone canonized takes money. Why? Expenses have to be paid. Research has to be done. Someone has to oversee the whole project. Results need to be collected for presentation to the Vatican. That's another advantage of the grassroots support. Not only can the group ask for prayers for the candidate's cause but it can ask folks to send funds to help cover costs. That's important because while the case moves from the diocese to Rome, someone has to foot the bill. According to Church norms, that has to be the group backing the idea.

9. The person who gathers the material for the bishop and oversees it getting put together is the postulator. After it's all in order, the bishop sends it on to Rome. Father McGivney's cause is at this stage now. Last spring the postulator, Dominican Father Gabriel B. O'Donnell, presented 700 pages of material to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. It will become the foundation for the positio, the case file, promoting the advancement of the cause, which Father O'Donnell is currently working on in Rome.

10. There is still a "translation" of the body, just as in the Middle Ages. The bishop and others are on hand when it is exhumed and examined This is also done to make sure the person the group thinks is buried there, really is buried there. Then, too, there could be signs of incorruptibility, which is considered a potential indication of holiness. On the other hand, if the body has corrupted, it is not viewed as a negative. Typically, as part of the translation, the body is moved to a more prominent place, one that's easier for pilgrims to visit. In the case of Father McGivney, this was done in 1982, when he was moved from his family's burial place at St. Joseph Cemetery in Waterbury, Connetticut., to St. Mary's Church in New Haven, where he founded the Knights of Columbus.

11. After carefully examining all the evidence, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints will present its findings to the head - the prefect - and its members. They decide whether or not to forward the cause to the pope.

12. Once declared a Servant of God, which is when the cause is opened, and then declared "Venerable" by a decree of a life of heroic virtue, the Vatican waits. In a sense, it leaves the next two steps up to God. In our own time, a miracle attributed to the intervention of the Servant of God is needed before he can be declared "Blessed." At that point he is given a particular liturgy and place on the local Church calendar and there can be a public devotion to him in the church.

In the past, two miracles were needed for beatification and two for canonization. Now it is one and one. Then, as now, martyrs did not need a miracle to be declared Blessed or canonized.

These days, since most miracles involve healing, a group of Roman physicians known as the Consulta Medica review cases and determine if there is a medical explanation for what has happened. They don't declare, "Yes, this was miraculous," but "We can find no scientific explanation for what happened."

13. Ultimately, the pope chooses to beatify the person. Or not. Most often the ceremony is held at St. Peter's in Rome but that doesn't have to be the case. John Paul II has held beatifications throughout the world during his visits.

14. It take another miracle for a Blessed to become a Saint. It could be that never happens. Some people remain Servant of God, others Blesseds. Then, too , even if another miracle has bee attributed to the person, it is the pope who chooses to canonize or not.

What if that person is never canonized? Never beatified? Never declared Venerable? he still has a feast day. All who died in God's grace do, including our own loved ones.

That's what All Saints' Day is. That November 1 feast is for all the souls in heaven, canonized or not.

Heavenly Titles

Servant of God:

This title is issued as soon as a cause opens. father McGivney can rightfull be addressed as such.


Once a decree of heroic virtue is issued by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the candidate is 'Venerable.'


Once one miracle has bee authenicated, the cause is ent to the pope as a possible 'Blessed.' Father Junipero Serra, the famed Spanish priest who established California missions is one; Fathe Damien de Veuster, the Belgian priest who worked with lepers in Hawaii, is another.


Once beatified, and one more miracle is accepted, the case is sent to the pope for canonization.

Bill Dodds is Columbia magazine's "Family" columnist and the author of "Your One-stop Guide to How Saints Are Made." For more information about Bill, see his web site or contact him at

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