Saints en Process

By Claude Langlois, historian


Everything is obscure about the process of canonization. And foremost is the fact of judging the dead which is contrary to the usual principles of law. The aim, it’s true, is not to condemn but to glorify. To understand the proceedings, we must go back to the first centuries. The saint is first a martyr whose body is venerated, a confessor who preached Christianity, a bishop who founded the local church, a hermit or an ascetic who brought together disciples. The saint remains alive in the memory of the faithful by his relics that are coveted or moved around. Another thing that makes a saint is also a memory preserved by the liturgy, a tomb that is venerated, a story of his life (hagiography) such as the Life of Martin de Tours by Sulpicius Severus.

Beginning with the 12th century, the making of saints became an ecclesiological issue, the papacy reserved this power for itself by restricting it. The Catholic Reform had to justify the cult of saints, challenged by Luther. In 1634 Pope Urban VIII, in the constitution Coelestis Jerusalem, put procedures into place which have remained until recently introduced modifications of Pius XI to John Paul II.  o understand how the making of a saint took place during Thérèse’s time, we need to keep in mind three distinct components which continually interfered with each other; material of the judgment, the judicial procedure and the roles of the ecclesiastical institutions.

1-Let’s begin by what the object of the examination is. Holiness is judged in three conjunctive manners. The first comes from the comportment of the person, the heroic practice of virtues. The two others register the saint in his time by his reputation (fama sanctitatis) and by his capacity to perform miracles. But two other different elements are examined in a canonization process, the writings and the cult. The writings are looked at closely to avoid proposing as a model, persons who have held ideas that are unorthodox or even morally reprehensible. But the behavior of clerics and the faithful are observed as well to avoid preempting the canonization by creating a public worship of the future saint.

2-All the long verification is done in the framework of a codified procedure having all the characteristics of a judicial approach. Primarily the procedure takes place in front of a tribunal made up of judges who hear the witnesses. The cause is supported there by a defender (Roman postulator who delegates his functions to a vice-postulator and is assisted by attorneys); intervening from somewhere else is a sort of prosecutor who outlines the weaknesses of the case. He is called the devil’s advocate, so that he is, as promoter of the faith, the representative of the institution. The fixed judicial vocabulary quickly becomes an incomprehensible jargon and the obligation of secrecy renders the entire procedure opaque. In this framework, each of the materials examined is the object of a particular procedure. There exists, from the beginning, a process apart from the writings and another, called non-cultus. And in the main process, the three “cases”-virtues, reputation, miracles must be “documented” according to distinct inquiries. As a consequence, the process is long (sometimes centuries), costly and the outcome uncertain. To make it succeed, an institution is necessary, such as the large religious orders that have many saints, or new congregations.

3. The ecclesiological context. The Bishop where the potential saint died (called servant of God), opens the process and prepares it by having witnesses depose, from whence the importance of beginning early comes from. Rome then steps in through the Congregation of Rites and by the pope himself who sanctions each stage of the process. The pontifical administration takes its time, delays are the norm in order to avoid enthusiasm or pressure. The Congregation of Rites is involved in two ways. First, by verifying that the diocesan process (ordinary process) is solid, which permits Rome to take up the inquiry itself by opening a second process done under the same conditions as the first but in the name of the pope (apostolic process). Next, by making a definitive judgment on each of the elements of the case, writings, virtues, miracles etc. So many occasions of delay, obstructions, of abandonment. At the end, we find another duality in obtaining recognition because the procedure is split concerning miracles for the beatification and the canonization.

This procedure, strictly ecclesiastical, calls upon lay persons as witnesses, attorneys or experts (medical doctor for miracles). The proclamation of a new saint is a pedagogy, in actuality, of the holiness of the Church in its history, as is witnessed through the incorporation of the blessed into the sanctoral calendar (church calendar). But the canonization obeys as well political finalities whether they be internal (to satisfy a religious family) or external (honoring a nation).

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