How is a Saint “canonized” in the Catholic Church?

The canonization process is complicated and often misunderstood, especially by non-Catholics.

Many wonder “What is a Servant of God versus a Venerable?”

Another favorite question posed is “Aren’t we all saints? So who cares what the Church says about canonizing them?”

I hope this article makes the canonization process easier to understand and clarifies what actually happens when a Saint is canonized in the Catholic Church.

What is canonization?

By the Rite of Canonization the Supreme Pontiff, by an act which is protected from error by the Holy Spirit, elevates a person to the universal veneration of the Church. By canonization the Pope does not make the person a saint. Rather, he declares that the person is with God and is an example of following Christ worthy of imitation by the faithful. — The Process of Beatification and Canonization, EWTN.com

Based on the foregoing, we see that the Saint is:

  • Elevated to universal veneration (not worship, only God is worshipped) of the Church.
  • Declared to be with God.
  • An example worthy of imitation by the faithful.

The Church does not make saints, God does.

But aren’t all Christians saints?

The simple answer is yes. However, the saints in heaven partake in or possess sainthood more fully.

Furthermore, canonized Saints of the Catholic Church are absolutely Saints, in heaven, with God, and worthy of imitation by the faithful. The same cannot be absolutely said about all Christians.

We know that canonized Saints are “absolutely” Saints because we believe that the Holy Spirit keeps the canonization process free from error.

For more on this read Aren’t We All Saints, by Tim Staples on Catholic Answers.

Canonization Timeline

A shorter timeline follows this one.

  • A Catholic person, the subject of canonization (the “Subject”), dies with a reputation for holiness.
  • There is a five-year waiting period after the Subject’s death to determine whether their reputation for holiness is enduring. The waiting period can be partially or entirely waived by the Pope.
  • After the waiting period is over, the local Bishop in the diocese where the Subject died may ask the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome (the “Congregation”) to initiate a Cause for Beatification and Canonization (a “Cause”) for the Subject.
  • If none of the departments of the Roman Curia object to the request to open a Cause for the Subject, then a nihil obstat (“nothing stands in the way”) is sent to the local Bishop allowing the process to go forward.
  • When a Cause is opened, the Subject is designated a “Servant of God.”
  • The Subject’s life, through testimony, and public and personal writings are investigated by a diocesan tribunal. This can take many years.
  • If the diocesan tribunal decides that the Subject demonstrated heroic virtues during their life, then, after receiving the local Bishop’s ultimate approval, their determination is sent to the Congregation, along with all of the documented evidence collected about the Subject (known as, the “Acts”).
  • The Acts of the Subject are given to a Relator at the Congregation who supervises the remainder of the process. The Relator ensures that a Positiosummarizing the Subject’s life and virtues is prepared by a theological commission formed by the Congregation.
  • After the Positio is prepared, the theological commission will vote “yes” or “no” on whether to proceed with the Subject’s Cause. If the commission votes “yes,” then the Cause is forwarded to the Pope who can either approve it or deny it.
  • If the Pope approves the Cause, then the Subject is found to have lived a life “heroic in virtue” and they are declared “Venerable.” The virtues the Subject must have possessed during their life are the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.
  • A miracle attributable to the Subject’s intercession must then be proposed for the process to continue. The proposed miracle is first investigated by the diocese where it occurred. Diocesan scientific and theological commissions are formed.
  • The diocesan scientific commission’s task is to determine that there is no natural explanation for the proposed miracle (which is usually medical in nature, i.e., a healing).
  • The diocesan theological commission’s task is to judge whether a miracle occurred (that it can only be attributed to God) and if so whether it was due to the Subject’s intercession alone (rather than through the intercession of other Saints).
  • The diocesan theological commission’s final decision about the proposed miracle is then sent to the Congregation who forms its own scientific and theological commissions similar to the diocesan commissions.
  • A “yes” vote by the Congregation’s theological commission is forwarded to the Pope. In the case of martyrdom, the investigation into the miracle may be waived.
  • If the Pope approves the proposed miracle, then the Subject is beatified and declared “Blessed.”
  • Before the Subject can be canonized, a second miracle attributable to the them must be proposed. The process for reviewing the proposed second miracle is the same as it is for the proposed first miracle.
  • If the Pope approves the proposed second miracle, then the canonization of the Subject is possible.
  • The Rite of Canonization is then performed by the Pope.

Shorter Canonization Timeline

  • The Subject dies with a reputation for holiness.
  • After the five-year waiting period is over, the local Bishop in the diocese where the Subject died may ask Rome to initiate a Cause for Beatification and Canonization (a “Cause”).
  • When a Cause is opened, the Subject is designated a “Servant of God.”
  • After investigation, if the Pope approves the Cause, then the Subject is found to have lived a life “heroic in virtue” and they are declared “Venerable.”
  • If the Pope approves the proposed first miracle, then the Subject is beatified and declared “Blessed.”
  • If the Pope approves the proposed second miracle, then the canonization of the Subject is possible.
  • The Rite of Canonization is then performed by the Pope.

The Four Levels of Canonization

  • Servant of God
  • Venerable
  • Blessed
  • Canonized (universally venerated by the Church and declared a Saint)

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