How and Why the Church Makes Saints
By Bert Ghezzi
“If they, why not I?—If these men and women could become saints, why cannot I with the help of him who is all-powerful?”
Holiness for all.
Saints intrigue us. We recognize something special about them that seems to set them apart from us. They have achieved an excellence that we admire, but that we suppose we can never reach. “Virtue is our Everest,” said saint-watcher Phyllis McGinley, “and those who climb highest are most worth admiring.” So we honor the saints by mentally placing them on pedestals that distance them from us, believing them to be the exceptional and we the ordinary.
When we get to know the saints a little better, however, that imagined distance shrinks. Observing saints more closely reveals that they were ordinary people just like us. I am inspired by seeing St. Teresa of Avila scarfing down a partridge instead of fasting and St. Lutgarde interrupting her Eucharistic devotion to get a snack. I am relieved to discover that St. Bertilla, with whom I share not only a name but a persistent problem with anger, once had to repent for cursing a young nun who crossed her.
What distinguishes saints from most people is their life purpose. Simply put, more than anything else, they wanted to be saints. “May God keep us in his grace,” wrote fifteen-year-old Dominic Savio to a friend, “and help us to become saints.” Thérèse of Lisieux resolved to become a saint at age 3. As an adult she affirmed her decision, saying “I am determined to find an elevator to carry me to Jesus, for I was too small to climb the steep stairs of perfection…. It is your arms, Jesus, which are the elevator to carry me to heaven.” St. Francis of Assisi announced his desire to become a saint at age 19. And Ignatius of Loyola stated his intention in words that invite our imitation: “The saints were of the same frame as I. Why should I not do as they have done?” This compelling desire for sanctity motivated all the saints, and their resolve invited a divine touch.
But determination does not create saints. As the word saint indicates, only God makes saints. Saint comes from a Latin root that means “holy” or “reserved for God.” The presence of the divine in human beings causes them to be holy and transforms them into saints. In fact, Scripture calls all Christians “saints” because God dwells in us. We share with those we call saints a union with God that makes us more like them than we may realize. Grace gives us all the potential to become saints like Teresa, Ignatius, Thérèse, Francis, and Dominic Savio. If we don’t aim for it, we lose out. “The one sadness,” said Léon Blois, “is not to be a saint.”
How the Church recognizes saints.
Of the millions of saints who have preceded us, the church has formally identified some women and men to aid us on our journey. Over the centuries and throughout the world, it has in diverse ways recognized an unnumbered thousands of saints. The early church first recognized martyrs as saints—the men and women who died for their faith. Christians began to remember the day of their death as their birthday into heaven, visit their tombs to ask for their intercession, write their stories, and enroll their names on lists called martyrologies. About the fourth century, when the persecutions subsided, the church started to recognize women and men who had not been martyred, but who would have given their lives for Christ had they had the chance. For the next six centuries, holy virgins, monks, lay theologians, widows, priests, and bishops had their names added to the lists of saints everywhere.
Today we call the church’s way of making saints “canonization.” The term literally refers to adding a name to a “canon,” or an official list of saints. But the term has come to refer more broadly to the process used to verify a person’s reputation for holiness. Today only the pope proclaims a saint after the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the church’s official saint-making research group, completes a lengthy and rigorous examination of the person’s life.
However, canonization evolved slowly. The first official canonization occurred in 993 when Pope John XV canonized St. Ulrich. Only in the twelfth century was the process of naming saints reserved to Rome by Pope Alexander III. Four centuries later, in 1588 Pope Sixtus V established a formal office in Rome to investigate the lives of candidates and conduct the saint-making process. The church still uses that system today, although it has been much reformed and improved, especially in the last century.
Pope John Paul II made local bishops responsible for nominating candidates for sainthood. He charged the Congregation for the Causes of saints to assure a candidate’s worthiness by rigorous study of his or her life, work, and writings. Once they have made their determination, they send their recommendation on to the pope for his action.
Persons under consideration for sainthood pass through different stages. Early on they are declared “Venerable,” meaning that they either had been martyred or had exercised Christian virtues to a heroic degree. Then the candidate may be beatified and given the title “Blessed.” To be beatified, the church requires one miracle acquired through the candidate’s intercession; however, no miracle is required for the beatification of a martyr. When the pope beatifies someone, he authorizes the limited public veneration of the saint within a diocese, religious order or perhaps a country. Canonization is the final stage of the process and occurs when the pope decrees that a person has already entered eternal glory and that the saint may be venerated universally. Canonization calls for a second miracle after beatification, and the church also requires a verified miracle for the canonization of a martyr.
Three reasons for naming saints.
The church gives us saints as exemplars, intercessors, and patrons.
When a pope canonizes a saint, he identifies the person’s life message so that we may imitate it. For example, in 1988, Pope John Paul II canonized Philippine Duchesne, a nineteenth-century French missionary to Native Americans. In the official decree, he recommended her “radical commitment to the poor and the outcast of society” as a “dynamic source of inspiration” and a “valid example for all” to follow. The church expects us to familiarize ourselves with the saints and to discern wisdom for our lives from their words and actions.
The church also gives us saints as intercessors and as patrons. We are encouraged to ask the saints to pray with us for our concerns and to invite them to protect and guide us on our journey. Intercession and patronage involve us personally with the saints that we believe now live in heaven with God. From the earliest days, Christians have spoken about this “communion of saints,” as we still do when we recite the Apostle’s Creed. We earthly saints are linked with heavenly saints, who constitute a vast, but invisible, sector of the Christian community. But as brothers and sisters who are joined with us in the church, we can rely on them for prayer and support.
The saints themselves expect to be doing the work of intercession once they get to heaven. For example, St. Dominic assured his friars that he could accomplish more for them after his death than he could in life. On his way to execution, St. Thomas More stopped to assure a man he had always prayed for that death would not stop his interceding for him. St. Thérèse of Lisieux promised to respond to requests by asking God to flood the world with little miracles and thousands testify that she has kept her word. The saint we turn to most often for intercession is the Queen of All Saints, Mary, who was influential enough with her Son to get him at Cana to adjust the timing of God’s plan (see John 2:4).
We still look to saints as patrons, but patronage for us has retreated considerably from its original meaning. In the early church, a patron acted as a protector and a guide. For example, St. Paulinus of Nola believed that St. Felix, his patron, accompanied him through life, protecting him from dangers and ensuring his relationship with Christ. Our selecting a saint’s name for a child or a teen’s choosing a saint’s name at Confirmation is distantly patterned on this ideal of patronage, but we expect far less of the patron than we ought. We should anticipate much more spiritual support from our invisible, but powerful, partners in the communion of saints.
In my experience, children and teens respond with enthusiasm to presentations of saints as ordinary people like them who lived purposely for God. The lives of saints appeal to their youthful idealism and can persuade them to imitate the saint’s decision to be holy and to live and love the Catholic faith.
All this to say that the Lord and the church call all of us to decide to be saints. I invite you to decide or to renew your decision right now as you put down the article.
Bert Ghezzi is the author of books about faith, spirituality and saints, including most recently an updated edition of Saint at Heart published by Paraclete Press.
Copyright © 2019 by Bert Ghezzi