Recognizing saints: The process of canonization
Throughout this Year with the Saints in the Diocese of Burlington, Catholics have many opportunities to encounter the saints recognized by the Catholic Church – perhaps seeing the well-known saints through fresh eyes or encountering saints unfamiliar to us. The Diocese even looks to promote the cause of its own potential saint – Vermont’s first bishop, Bishop Louis deGoesbriand. With this focus, it’s only natural the question arises: How does the Catholic Church recognize that someone is a saint?
The process of identifying and declaring saints in the Catholic Church is called “canonization.” While many have heard of this word before, the process of canonization is often shrouded in mystery and little understood. The canonization process is not an easy one as it involves many steps and phases, but let’s unpack this process a bit.
Put simply, the process of canonization is a series of three separate and complex investigations. One investigation makes a detailed look at the life and work of the candidate for sainthood which must be completed before the other two investigations begin. The other two investigations examine each of the alleged miracles ascribed to the candidate (as it usually takes two miracles to be declared a saint). Each of the three investigations takes place in two phases: a local phase, where a local Diocese (where the saint lived or worked) directs the process, and the Vatican phase, overseen by a special office called the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. As you can imagine, both the local and Vatican phase of each investigation can take years. To declare that someone is a saint is a very important event in the life of the Church, and those responsible for the process want to ensure an accurate and thorough job.
The Local Phase
So how does the entire process unfold? The investigation into the life of the candidate begins with a petition to open the “cause for canonization.” The petitioner can be an individual or a group of individuals who are committed to promoting the investigation. The petitioner will often nominate a person (a priest, deacon or lay person) to serve as the official coordinator – or postulator – of the investigation. The petition is then sent to the local bishop along with documentation that supports the cause for canonization such as a biography of the candidate and a copy of his or her writings.
Before approving the petition, the bishop must determine that the candidate has a reputation among the faithful for his or her life of holiness. This determination is an important part of the process. Of course, the cause for sainthood can gain no traction if people don’t know about the candidate. But it’s more than just knowledge; the candidate should have a reputation among the people for having been a holy person. Although there can be no public veneration of this person yet since he or she hasn’t been declared a blessed or saint, there should be evidence that there is spontaneous private prayer to the saint because of the person’s reputation.
If all is favorable, then the bishop formally approves the petition and appoints the postulator and others who will conduct the investigation into the life of the candidate. It is at this point that the “cause for canonization” is declared open. It is also when the candidate is declared a “servant of God.”
The life of the candidate is then vigorously and meticulously investigated. Historians, archivists and theologians are all involved, searching out and gathering all the writings of the Servant of God, everything written about the servant of God by others (even material never published), as well as every historical document (such as handwritten notes) which may in any way relate to the cause. All these materials are scrutinized, and the expert historians, archivists, and theologians are interviewed under oath about their findings. It is essential that they relate everything they’ve found, including anything that may paint the servant of God in an unfavorable light.
As this local investigation comes to a close, an important step then takes place. The bishop must declare that there is no public veneration of the servant of God that is or has taken place. The Church wants to be very careful not to promote any public veneration before someone is officially declared a blessed or saint. As part of this step, and once permission is granted by the Vatican and the local civil authorities, the body of the Servant of God is exhumed and examined to ensure that the remains are authentic and have not been disturbed; medical experts assist with this verification.
Finally, the results of the full investigation are sent to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The local phase of the investigation into the life of the servant of God is concluded.
The Vatican Phase
In the Vatican phase, which again, can take many years, the results of the local investigation are carefully reviewed and scrutinized for accuracy and thoroughness. If problems are found in the way the local phase unfolded, the cause is sent back to the local diocese to be addressed. The Vatican may ask for additional information or have the material reviewed by their own experts.
If the Vatican finds the investigation favorable, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints declares the servant of God to have lived a life of heroic virtue and have a reputation for holiness. At this point, the Servant of God becomes “venerable.” At this point, the Church allows for public prayers of intercession to the venerable. This permission is important, because to move any further in the process, miracles must be attributed to the venerable.
As it is widely known, miracles must be attributed to the person in order for them to be declared a “blessed” (one miracle) or a “saint” (two miracles, unless the person died a martyr). What is not as well known, however, is that miracles only “count” if they’ve taken place after a person has been declared “venerable,” that is, after the local and Vatican investigations into the person’s life have been completed. Once declared “venerable,” the Church formally recognizes that the person can indeed intercede to God on behalf of someone still living. Thus miracles are considered only after this recognition takes place.
The alleged miracles then undergo the same kind of thorough investigation that the saint’s life did. There is a local phase of investigation, where experts (especially medical experts when an alleged healing has taken place) and witnesses testify to the nature of the miracle. The investigation is then sent to Rome, where it is similarly reviewed and scrutinized by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and their experts.
The Final Steps: Beatification and Canonization
When the Vatican accepts one miracle, the person then becomes “blessed.” People are declared “blessed” through a declaration of the Pope and a special liturgy called “beatification.” The beatification liturgy usually happens in the local diocese, not in Rome. The papal representative to the home country or another bishop presides at the celebration. The head of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (called a prefect) attends the ceremony and reads the pope’s decree at the beatification. Beatification gives permission for the diocese or region to publicly venerate that person, even though that person is not yet declared a saint.
Finally, after the verification of a second miracle by the Vatican (the miracle has to occur after the person has been beatified), the pope declares the person a “saint.” This, too, involves a liturgy that takes place in Rome, presided by the pope himself. This declaration allows for the saint to be venerated around the world, and a feast day for the saint to be established around the world and added to the liturgical calendar.
Bishop deGoesbriand’s cause: Where are we in the process and what can you do?
In order to formally open the cause for sainthood for Vermont’s first bishop, Bishop Louis deGoesbriand, the bishop must have a reputation of holiness among the Catholic faithful. We encourage you to learn about Bishop deGoesbriand’s life and work through the various articles that appear in Vermont Catholic. The Office of Worship and the diocesan archives cosponsor a traveling presentation on Burlington’s first bishop, available to parishes and schools throughout the Diocese. The presentation includes an overview of the process of canonization, a biographical sketch of the extraordinary life of our first bishop and a curated display of artifacts from our diocesan archives belonging to the first bishop. You’ll also learn if there is any direct connection between Bishop deGoesbriand and your parish. If you are interested in having the traveling presentation come to your parish, please encourage your pastor to get in touch with Kathleen Messier at the archives.
Also, we invite you to pray for the cause for canonization. The Office of Worship has a special prayer card created to promote the cause. Visit vermontcatholic.org/liturgy for an order form or call Valerie Parzyck at 802-658-6110 ext. 1131 to order over the phone.
Finally, if you’re interested in being part of a group to help promote the cause or have ideas on how we can better spread the story of Bishop deGoesbriand, contact Josh Perry, director of the Office of Worship, at 802-658-6110 ext. 1460 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.