Saturday, April 30, 2011

Beatification and Canonization: How does it happen?

With the much-anticipated beatification of Pope John Paul II tomorrow, this seems the perfect time to explain the process of canonization!

If you are dying for all the official details, you can read the canonical procedures as laid out in the Apostolic Constitution Divinus Perfectionis Magister. But I like to put things simply, so here is a bare bones outline:

1) A person with a reputation for sanctity dies.

2) Before a "cause" can begin for his beatification and canonization, five years must pass. This is to ensure that emotions and fervor, which often surround the death of a holy person, have stabilized.

3) The local bishop, at the request of the faithful, may open an investigation. A diocesan tribunal is formed, and witnesses are called forth to testify to the heroic virtue of the candidate, as demonstrated by facts of his life. Documents and evidence are gathered, and the candidate is deemed "Servant of God".

4) Upon completion of the local investigation, the case is sent on to Rome, to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, where a more rigorous investigation begins. After an intense examination of the claims of heroic virtue (and doctrinal orthodoxy) of the candidate, nine theologians vote as to whether the cause should move forward. If yes, then the cause is sent to the cardinals and bishops who are members of the Congregation. If, after months of meetings, they also vote yes, then the cause moves on to the Pope for approval and public decree.

5) The next step is beatification. For a candidate to be eligible for beatification, the Church requires evidence of one miracle attributed to the intercession of the candidate -- a miracle that occurred after his death. A posthumous miracle is considered proof that the person is truly in Heaven. (Martyrs are exempt from the requirement of this first miracle.) Beatification also requires another investigation of the candidate's heroic virtue, and the Church may call "devil's advocates" to the stand, to testify against the candidate's cause. If the results of these investigations are favorable, the Pope beatifies the candidate, who may now be called "Blessed" and receive limited veneration.

6) Canonization is the final step in the process, and it requires evidence of a second miracle (or first, in the case of a martyr), which must have taken place after the beatification.

It's the miracle stuff that I find so fun! I remember watching a network news magazine back in 1998 (I think it was Dateline NBC), which did a segment on the canonization of Edith Stein, aka Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. They focused on the Vatican's miracle investigation, specifically that a little American girl at death's door was healed miraculously through Edith Stein's intercession.

The secular doctors who were called before the Vatican panels to testify about the alleged miracle were interviewed by the network. These doctors (who treated the girl and/or were expert medical witnesses) had no affiliation with the Church, and had no prior knowledge of or interest in the Church's investigative processes. I recall one doctor expressing his surprise and admiration for the thoroughness and seriousness of the panel inquiry. He hadn't expected it to be so objective and scientific, and he was quite impressed and satisfied.

It was one of the only times I've witnessed a major media network report fairly and respectfully about the Catholic Church.

7) Finally, if all the investigations are decided in favor of the candidate (after many years!), the Pope canonizes the candidate, who acquires the title of "Saint". This declaration is considered infallible.

It's important to remember that everyone in Heaven is a saint. Canonization does not "make" someone a saint, but merely confirms the truth of what God has already done for that person. The faithful on earth have assurance that the canonized saint dwells with the Lord in Heaven, and that we may look to him as a Christian role model and hero, and request his intercession at the Throne of God.

The saints are such a gift to the Church!


On a personal note, I am giddy that tomorrow my eldest daughter, who has been studying in Italy, will be attending the vigil and beatification mass of Pope John Paul II! For those of us not lucky enough to be there, we can watch the vigil and beatification live on EWTN, or watch/listen through the internet.

JPII, we love you!


  1. It would be awesome to be in Rome right now.

  2. I am a college student studying in Spain this semester and recently traveled to Italy for Holy Week with 5 other Catholic friends. While most people spent Spring Break in Amsterdam or hopping from one European party city to the next, we woke up at the crack of dawn to wait in line outside the Vatican clutching our tickets for Easter Mass. Sitting in the seventh row and watching Pope Benedict XVI in the procession from only 3 feet away, with tears streaming down our faces, was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. How lucky for your daughter to be at the Beatification - what a blessing!!!

  3. Sarah, that is amazing! What a blessing is right!

    (My daughter can relate to what you are saying about the other students living to party while in Europe... Wow, it been depressing to hear how most of the others spent their semester. I am soooo happy to hear that the six of you were where you were! Email me -- you and my daughter should be facebook friends!)

  4. I KNEW I could count on you - yesterday I was googling how this all happened and everything I found just hurt my brain. I almost emailed you to request this post ;).
    Thanks :)

  5. As I recall, Christopher Hitchens was the Devil's Advocate during the beatification process of Mother Teresa.

  6. I love this stuff especially on miracles. I hope it shows our atheist friends how thorough, scientific and prudent our Church is when investigating miracles.

    Do they still have the "devil's advocate?" I thought the venerable JPII did away with that.

  7. Monica, you are right.

    suburban mom, it's called something else now, and it's optional.

    Rebecca, things hurt my brain a lot, too, which is why I have to do these posts! It helps me out! ha!

  8. Thanks, Leila, I'm glad you posted this as I've always wanted to know how a canonization takes place!

  9. I am so excited. Live coverage online and on EWTN starts at midnight Central. Hurrah!!

  10. Leila

    I have a question. I've always understood it that part of the steps to a beatification/canonization is that the body of the deceased has to be exhumed to see if a miracle took place (the body has been miraculously preserved.) Is that still true?

  11. Hi Becky! They did exhume his body, and I'm guessing they check it (although the main purpose was to have the faithful be able to venerate it and then move it to its final resting place, near the Pieta). Some saints do have the gift of incorruptibility, but it's rare and most saints do not have that, so it would be checked, I would think, but not expected.

    I hope that makes sense!

  12. Awesome post and explanation, Leila! FBing it!

  13. This was great Leila! Love the "teaching from the bubble" series!

  14. Thank you for the clear explanation! My parents were missionaries in Italy when JPII was elected pope, and watching the process and seeing the excitement of the people when he was elected was what first got me interested in the Catholic church, as an eleven year old Protestant missionaries kid!

  15. I did not see the step of "Venerable" in this process. I admire the life of Venerable Matt Talbott, for example. I believe that Venerable is one step above Servant of God and one step below Blessed.


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