October 13, 2006

How the canonization process works

By Msgr. Frederick Easton

The Second Vatican Council taught that “all the faithful of Christ … are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (Dogmatic Constitution On the Church, #40).

Saints are those Christians who have died but who during their lifetime lived the Christian life and love to the full.

Knowing how saints figure in our lives is very important as we find ourselves on the verge of the canonization of the first Indiana saint, Blessed Mother Theodore Guérin, foundress of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

Beatification and then canonization amount to public recognition by the Church of the holiness of those who have either shed their blood as martyrs or who have led a life of heroic virtue.

By beatification and canonization, the Church honors these her children whom she knows have generously responded to divine grace and proposes them as examples of that holiness to which all Christians are called by their baptism.

The process for declaring a saint has developed over time. In the earliest centuries, the martyrdom of Christians was public knowledge and the faithful themselves, together with the pastors, venerated them as saints. Beginning in the sixth century, local bishops recognized the holiness of certain persons by authorizing the exhumation of their bodies and their entombment in churches.

By the 13th century, the pope had taken over the authorization of the

honoring of the saints. In 1588, Pope Sixtus V created the Congregation of Rites, which handled causes of beatification and canonization until the Congregation for the Causes of Saints was created around the time the 1983 Code of Canon Law went into effect.

One of the important figures in the history of this process was Pope Benedict XIV, who in the 18th century had served in the Congregation of Rites and who wrote a four-volume work on the subject.

From my personal experience leading the process for investigating the miracle attributed to Blessed Mother Theodore as well as overseeing the process for the cause of the Servant of God, Simon Bruté, the first bishop of Vincennes, I continue to be impressed with the precision and thoroughness of the process.

The first stage of the process for the cause of Bishop Simon Bruté was opened last fall, at which time he began to be called “Servant of God.” This first stage is focused on the reputation for holiness of the person. Then, if there are people still alive who knew the person, they are interviewed. If not, then those who know the “oral tradition” about the person are interviewed with a view to learning about the person’s reputation for holiness.

All published writings of the person are examined by two commissions appointed by the local bishop. A historical commission must read the writings, prepare a list of them and report on the personality of the Servant of God based on these writings. The theological commission writes a report about the writings’ orthodoxy.

The writings, the testimony of the witnesses and the statements of the commissions are forwarded to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which determines if they warrant recommendation to the pope that the Servant of God be declared “Venerable.”

One miracle is needed for beatification. A second miracle occurring after the beatification is needed for canonization.

Many people like to know what is the role of miracles in cases of beatification and canonization. In an address to the Congregation earlier this year, Pope Benedict XVI said that the essential role of miracles is to be simply God’s confirmation of the earlier judgment of the Church that the person had led a life of heroic virtue. Under the present process, one miracle is sufficient for beatification.

The heart of the investigative process consists in obtaining in person the sworn testimony of the person healed—if he or she is still alive—the testimony of family members, close friends or acquaintances, the testimony of medical doctors who treated the person during the illness, and the testimony of those especially appointed to interview the healed person and assess the person’s medical records. If eyewitnesses are not available, the testimony of those who can give assurance of the facts is taken, as was the case for the miracle for the beatification of Blessed Mother Theodore.

All witnesses must testify before a specially designated panel consisting of the delegate of the bishop for the process, the promoter of justice of the tribunal, a medical doctor and an ecclesiastical notary to take down the testimony and vouch for its authenticity. The entire process has an opening session which declares the legitimacy of initiating and a closing session which declares the investigation complete.

Every page of the testimonies and other documents are authenticated by the seal and initials of the notary. Two copies of the bound dossier are specially wrapped with a ribbon and a wax seal of the tribunal and sent to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome, steps reflective of the seriousness and solemn nature of this process.

Only after verifying the integrity of the dossier received and that the required process was followed in obtaining

the testimony does the Roman Congregation designate

five doctors to evaluate the merits of the case. And, if the doctors say that the healing did not happen by medical

science or other human means, then seven theologians also review the dossier and make their recommendation.

If this report is favorable, then the bishops and cardinals appointed to the Congregation review the matter and decide whether to recommend the cause to the Holy Father. If they recommend, then it is up to the Holy Father to decide whether or not to go forward to beatification or canonization.

Pope Benedict will canonize our first Indiana saint on Oct.15. May she, from her vantage point in heaven, intercede with Divine Providence for our archdiocese.

(Msgr. Frederick Easton is vicar judicial for the archdiocesan Metropolitan Tribunal.) †

Local site Links: