Throughout this week, you might have heard in the media that Pope Benedict XVI is on an official four-day state visit to Britain; the first time a pontiff has ever visited the U.K. In addition to his meetings with the nation’s leadership, he will beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman, who is on his way to becoming the first British saint in 40 years.
The first Christians to be honored as saints were the martyrs of the early church – those who had died giving witness to their faith under persecution. The Roman Catholic Church has canonized approximately 3,000 people through the years – but they are careful to say that it is not the canonization which makes a person a saint but that it is a recognition of the work that God has done. An official canonization process was developed by Pope John XV in the 10th century, with some modification in the intervening years.
The process of becoming a saint is a long and complicated one. A minimum of five years must pass after the death of an individual before the process of petitioning can begin. Once a petition is sent to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (the Vatican’s saint-making body) and the Vatican declares it is not in opposition to the candidate, the title “Servant of God” becomes attached to the name. Then, research on the individual begins in earnest and every part of their life is studied.
If witnesses are alive, they are called before a tribunal of bishops, priests and nuns. Letters and papers may need to be translated. When the evidence is all collected, a position paper (or positio) is written – approximately the length of a doctoral dissertation. In addition to this academic work, the candidate for sainthood’s body must be exhumed because the church requires proof that the individual actually existed.
After the positio is presented, the writings are analyzed for dogmatic error, and the body is reinterred. Then, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints must determine if the candidate lived a life of heroic virtue. If the committee and the Pope agree, the candidate is then given the title “Venerable”. Venerable means that the person is a role model for living the Catholic faith.
Next, the search for two posthumous miracles begins. The first recognized miracle earns the candidate beatification and the title “Blessed” (martyrs of the faith are allowed to go through the beatification process without evidence of a miracle). Mother Theresa was beatified in October 2003. The second miracle brings canonization and the title “Saint”. The Vatican has very high standards for determining miracles. Five doctors must conclude that there is no reasonable medical explanation for a healing to have occurred.
Typically, the journey to sainthood is quite expensive. Members of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and the doctors on the medical board all must be paid for their work. There are trips to Rome. Some estimate it can cost about $500,000, which is particularly difficult for the nuns and priests who have taken vows of poverty. Why do they do this? Most hope that the process will help to publicize the work of their candidate and be a blessing and inspiration to others.
(Notes for this post came from an article I wrote for the Navpress publication Current Thoughts and Trends in April 1999 “The long, costly journey to sainthood” as well as from a short article on the website “How Stuff Works” at
Would you like to learn more about the study of saints? You will find many biographies in our collection. This type of writing is actually known as “hagiography” — “hagios” is a Greek term that means “holy” or even “saint” and “graphe” is writing. Hagiographies can include a variety of genres such as lives of saints, collections of miraculous stories, and books of prayers and sermons.
Butler, Alban. Butler’s Lives of the Saints. Liturgical Press, 1995-1997, 11 vols.
Farmer, David Hugh. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford University Press, 1997.
Head, Thomas, ed. Medieval Hagiography: An Anthology. Routledge, 2001.
Heffernan, Thomas J. Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographers in the Middle Ages. Oxford University Press, 1988.