With Cardinal Newman’s Cause in the news Christopher Keeffe considers the qualities that are required for canonisation
On July 4 2009 Pope Benedict XVI recognised as miraculous the healing of the American Deacon Jack Sullivan through the intercession of Cardinal John Henry Newman. This opens the way for Cardinal Newman’s beatification next year.
But what is beatification and canonisation and how does the Church recognise holiness?
Essentially, canonisation allows the universal veneration of a saint. Whereas beatification permits restricted veneration of a person. Veneration is restricted to a geographical area or religious community.
Until AD 315 and the decriminalisation of Christianity saints were also martyrs. The veneration of saints and their relics is powerfully attested to by the letter of the Church at Smyrna in AD 115 in respect to the martyrdom of their bishop St Polycarp. These saints were normally determined by public acclamation and approval of the local bishop. Indeed, such was the importance of Church approval that a pious woman was roundly criticised by St Optatius of Mileve for venerating the remains of a non-approved martyr.
The earliest non-martyr appears to be St Martin of Tours, who had several churches dedicated to him in Rome as early as 514. Since 1171, under Pope Alexander III, Rome has asserted jurisdiction over who is and who can be venerated as a saint. The first canonisation presided over by a pope appears to be that of St Ulric, Bishop of Augsburg, by Pope John XV in 993. Pope Gregory IX in 1234 decided that both canonisations and beatification should only be permitted with papal approval.
In 1983 Pope John Paul II reformed the laws relating to beatification and canonisation through the apostolic constitution Divinus Perfectionis Magister (and its related Norms). And in 2007 Pope Benedict XVI approved the Instruction Sanctorum Mater to ensure more faithful following of these laws. The modern laws are quite simplistic in the sense that they actively promote the role of the local Church in promoting and proving a Cause. Rome maintains a supervisory and essentially a “quality assurance” role to ensure that standards are applied consistently across the Church, so that the concept of holiness is the same in Africa as it is in Europe. Today, many people still mourn the passing of the role of Devil’s Advocate, yet this role is essentially performed by the Promotor of Faith who ensures that negative reports are fully tested.
How does one become a saint? Well, through baptism we are all called to be saints and the sacraments provide us with the means to do so. But to be recognised as a saint by the Catholic Church one must first be Catholic. Second, one needs to be dead – and be so for at least five years before a Cause is introduced.
In order to open a Cause a petitioner (group of the faithful) petitions the bishop of the diocese where the person died. If the bishop judges it opportune to open a Cause he will petition the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to approve opening the cause and the appointment of a postulator. The person is then known as a Servant of God.
Once a postulator, who since 1983 can be a lay person or religious (though generally they must reside in Rome), has collected all available evidence the bishop submits the report to the Vatican. Upon receipt, Rome approves the diocesan process and appoints a relator. A relator is similar to a French magistrate in that they have investigative powers to prove the Cause. Once the relator is satisfied that the cause is strong enough it is considered by nine theologians. After this, members of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (cardinals and bishops) vote on whether they are satisfied that a person is either a martyr or has lived a life of heroic virtue. If they are, they report to the Holy Father who either accepts the vote or asks for more work. If the vote is accepted in the case of a nonmartyr the person may, after a decree has been issued, be called Venerable, after which a search for a miracle begins. In the case of a martyr they will be called Venerable and a date is set for beatification (as martyrs only need a miracle at the canonisation stage).
The postulator of the Cause will seek a miracle. Once found, a tribunal is convened in the diocese where the alleged miracle took place to establish whether it is genuine. A panel of medical experts and theologians considers the person’s diagnosis, prognosis and treatments and whether the cure was immediate and long-lasting. The theologians also seek to determine whether the Servant of God secured the miracle and, as with the previous stage, a report is sent to Rome, where the diocesan stage is confirmed. A panel of medical experts and nine theologians consider the miracle. If approved, the members of the congregation submit a report to the Holy Father, who accepts or rejects it. If accepted, a date for beatification is set. The person is known as Blessed after the decree of beatification is read at the Mass.
Since May 2005 Pope Benedict XVI has restored the tradition of having the rite of beatification delegated to either the prefect of the congregation or a local bishop. The rite is normally performed in the diocese which promoted the Cause. After the beatification the process starts again from the beatification miracle for both martyrs and non martyrs.
Many people have claimed that Pope John Paul II turned Rome into a saint-making factory. Given that we are all called to be saints, it is strange that one may think there are too many saints.
Another criticism is the length of time it takes to process the Cause. The “quickest” modern Cause is that of St Josemaría Escrivá who died in 1975 – he was beatified in 1992 and canonised in 2002, compared to the Cause of St Thérèse of Lisieux, who died in 1879 and was considered under the protracted old law. But both causes took a similar length of time. She was beatified in 1923 and canonised in 1925.
Pope John Paul II promoted the idea of contemporary examples of holiness. Nearly 1,000 years ago the Cause of St Francis of Assisi was completed in less then two years (he died in October 1226 and was canonised in July 1228). The record for rapid canonisation must rest with St Anthony of Padua, who was canonised on May 30 1232, some 352 days after his death. The slowest Cause must be that of St Joan of Arc, who was canonised 489 years after her death in 1920.