The Catholic Church's Acknowledgment of Extraordinary Holiness

by Fr. Daniel Maher

When the Catholic Church speaks of the mysteries of faith, it refers to points of theological belief which are beyond sensible comprehension or scientific proof and thus must be accepted as matters of revealed truth. Examples of true mysteries of the faith are matters such as the nature of the Holy Trinity, the Immaculate Conception, or the Eucharist. The process the Church uses to declare one of its deceased members a saint, however, remains just as mysterious to many believers, because they are not familiar with the steps in the process. New saints periodically appear on the Church's liturgical calendar for commemoration and many may be puzzled about who they are, how they got there, and why they are significant in the first place. What follows is a brief summary of the steps in the Church's process which leads to the canonization of a saint.

Who Makes Saints?

The Catholic Church recognizes that the making of saints is ultimately God's work. That is to say, only with the help of God's grace can one who has received the universal call to holiness successfully respond to that call and enter into eternal life with God. The Church, however, is entrusted with the responsibility of acknowledging those whose lives have been exemplary models of holiness and heroic virtue. This acknowledgment of holiness serves the mission of the Church by edifying and encouraging the faithful, while also pointing to powerful intercessors who can assist us on our journey towards eternal life.

The Role of the Pope

Pope John Paul II has been most proactive in encouraging the work of the Vatican congregation which is entrusted with the task of studying the recorded history of the lives of those with reputed extraordinary holiness. Thus, more saints have been added to the Church's listing (canon of saints) during Pope John Paul II's lengthy pontificate than during any other pontificate in history because of his great desire to see those of extraordinary holiness duly recognized for their inspiring cooperation with God's grace. The current pope has also been particularly conscious of encouraging the examination of the lives of lay people who were noted for their holiness, so that the Church's liturgical life can be enriched by the models of marriage, family life, or the single life which holy lay people offer it. While the pope plays a key role in the canonization process, as the one who issues the ultimate decree of canonization, there are many other significant moments in the process that precede the pope's final affirmation in the matter.

The Path to Canonization

The process must begin with a step which is referred to as the opening of the cause of a candidate for declaration as a saint. To open the cause and move it forward, the bishop of the region where the candidate lived cooperates with Vatican officials to assign an advocate for the cause of the candidate. This advocate is known as a postulator and it is their duty to initiate the examination of facts pertinent to the life of the one being proposed as a person of extraordinary holiness by a significant number of the faithful. The basis for this judgment of extraordinary holiness within this "servant of God" may be eyewitness observation of one's outstanding virtue, the heroic witness of martyrdom, or the association of this person's intercession with some apparent miracle.

The essence of the examination of the servant of God's life lies in an intensive consideration of the person's reputed holiness to insure that the characteristics which were perceived as indicators of holiness in the person's life were indeed associated with the person's religious qualities and were motivated by an extraordinary love of God and love of neighbor. If the proposed saint is reputed to have died as a martyr, there is an attempt to ascertain the fact of martyrdom and to insure that there was a proper motive behind that heroic sacrifice. Information regarding miracles which may be attributed to the servant of God's intercession are sought as well, as that kind of development can be a signal of the servant of God's union with the Trinity.

During the postulator's preliminary review of the servant of God's life, another element that is examined are writings which may remain from the servant of God's life. These are carefully reviewed to make sure that they reflect nothing contrary to Catholic faith and morals.

If the examination of the servant of God's life and his or her writings reveal a life consistent with authentic holiness and heroic love of God and neighbor, then the Vatican congregation charged with oversight of the canonization process decides whether a formal commission to study the servant of God's life will be formed. If the step of appointing a study commission is taken, the candidate for sainthood is granted the title "Venerable", meaning the person's qualities are deemed particularly worthy of reverence and emulation.

Beyond the generally intensified scrutiny of data which is now gatherd with regard to the one known as "Venerable", the examination of reputed miracles is the essence of this phase of the process. In cases of martyrdom, the requisite for proven miracles may be minimized or waived and in cases where the heroic virtue of life is clearly provable, two proven miracles suffice as evidence of extraordinary holiness and allow one to be granted the Church's ceremonies of beatification, in which they receive the title "Blessed". In cases where the heroic virtue of one is less clearly proven, but seemingly evident, a third or a fourth miracle may be required before beatification occurs.

One who has been beatified by the Church is considered particularly blessed by God and therefore worthy of a certain degree of veneration by the faithful. This permission to venerate is a much more limited scope though than what would ultimately be granted by virtue of canonization. Public reverence of one who is titled "Blessed" can be permitted in restricted circumstances, but ordinarily public prayers in his or her honor, or Masses with prayers that make reference to the one beatified are permitted only in special cases and in rather localized circumstances.

Once the permission of this localized veneration is granted, two more provable miracles are necessary for the candidate to progress to the pinnacle of the process and to merit declaration as a canonized saint, one who is definitively deemed to dwell with God in heaven. Canonization ceremonies formalize this declaration and recognize the person as one worthy of public veneration by the universal Church, holding him or her up as a model of imitation and as a powerful intercessor for all.

The North American Center for the Promotion of Legionary Saints is interested in possibly helping advance the canonization causes of Venerable Edel Quinn and servants of God Frank Duff and Alfie Lambe, as the Church considers their unique sanctity. The Center will be a gathering and dissemination point for details that might help point to their sanctity. All visitors to this website are therefore encouraged to ask for more information about these exemplary Legionaries, to begin seeking their intercession, and to report any knowledge of reputed miracles which may be attributed to their intercession.

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