The Making of a Saint


The recent canonisation of Opus Dei founder, Josemaria Escriva de Balageur, and controversy surrounding miracles attributed to Mother Theresa of Calcutta as part of her beatification process have made headline news recently. As a consequence, questions are being asked about the procedure involved in determining sainthood.

The Church declares a person to be a saint and worthy of veneration by the faithful through a juridical process called canonisation, meaning “to be officially put on the list”. During the early centuries, the spontaneous acclamation of local Christians was all that was required. During the 6th and 7th centuries, the number of saints receiving veneration and having feasts celebrated in their honour increased rapidly. Sometimes the lives of these saints seemed to fall far short of being worthy models of the faith. There was a need for official regulation of the process, including an investigation of the life of the reputed saint.

At first, only local Church authorities, usually the bishop, conducted this investigation. It involved gathering evidence of a reputation of holiness, a sustained practice of visiting the tomb of that person and seeking their intercession, and evidence of miracles.

As the authority of the Church became more centralised in Rome, this process was eventually taken over by papal offices. At first, the involvement by the Vatican was confined to giving consent for the transfer of relics and for public veneration. In 1234, however, norms were introduced which placed the entire process in Rome’s hands. In 1588, the Sacred Congregation of Rites in the Roman Curia was assigned responsibility for canonisations and, with modifications, the procedures remain in effect today through the Congregation of the Causes of Saints.

The process of canonisation, which usually takes generations to be finalised, begins in the diocese where the candidate lived or worked. If there is a reputation for holiness, a “postulator” presents the evidence to a panel of judges appointed by the local bishop. A “promoter of the faith”, once commonly referred to as “ the devil’s advocate”, challenges this evidence. Matters covered by the investigation include the person’s orthodoxy in writings, heroic exercise of virtue, and evidence of miracles or martyrdom.

The case is written up and passed on to officials in Rome where the process is eventually repeated in greater depth. It is the pope who decides if the cause is to be introduced. If the evidence is considered incontrovertible, the person is solemnly and publicly beatified (not “beautified”, as I have sometimes heard it called!) by the pope, with veneration restricted to the city, diocese, region or religious community from which the saint came.

After evidence of more miracles, the whole process is repeated, often generations later. Finally, in a solemn liturgy such as the recent celebration in Rome, the saint is canonised and recommended for universal veneration.


Elizabeth Harrington