The Church takes its saint-making seriously

  • October 4, 2010
Brother AndréBy some estimates, the Church has formally recognized and honoured more than 10,000 saints. There have been saints ever since the first century. In the long history of the Church, Catholics have even celebrated and prayed to saints who never existed (St. Christopher, St. Ursula). Pope John Paul II himself declared 482 saints over his 28-year papacy.

The process of canonization normally stretches over a generation or more. Some causes for saints have been maintained over a century before finally making the grade.

For Catholics, all this effort put into saint-making is not a sideshow, not a frill, not the arcane nonsense of the canon law hobbyist. Saints are essential to our communion. We are not who we profess to be without the communion of the saints.

“Their lives are not just an example to us,” explained Jesuit historian Fr. Jacques Monet. “They’re also a glorification of God, and how God works, and how the wonderful works of God get incarnated, so-to-speak, and expressed by human beings.”

Believing in the Incarnation means believing God has made the human part of God, and made God part of the human. That’s true of everybody, including the most unrepentant sinners. But saints recognized by the Church have let God shine through them in unforgettable ways — in ways that bring the grace of God to all of us.

Christians didn’t invent the idea. Jews were honouring holy individuals with shrines in Jesus’ own time and before. The first Christian saints were martyrs — St. Stephen, stoned to death by a mob while St. Paul looked on approvingly (Acts 7:54 - 8:1), was the first martyr and the first saint.

For a short period martyrs and saints were the same thing in the early Church. By the fourth century Christians began to venerate holy men and women who had not been killed for professing the faith. “Confessors” were saints who lived extraordinary lives which demonstrated their faith in Jesus.

“To these (martyrs, Apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary) were soon added others also who had imitated more closely the virginity and poverty of Christ and, finally, others whose outstanding practise of the Christian virtues and whose divine charisms commended them to the pious devotion of, and imitation by, the faithful,” said Pope John Paul II in his 1983 Apostolic Constitution Divinus Perfectionis Magister (The Divine Teacher and Model of Perfection).

In the 16th century Pope Sixtus V centralized the formal saint-making process in the Vatican’s Congregation of Sacred Rites. In the early and medieval Church individual bishops had authority over who was venerated as a saint in their diocese.

In 1969, Pope Paul VI established a separate dicastery or department of the Vatican to handle causes for sainthood. In 1983 Pope John Paul II established new norms governing investigations into the lives of proposed saints and the roles played by bishops and the Vatican.

Individual countries, cultures, religious orders and cities have always sought saints of their own — holy men and women who shared the same language, culture and history with the faithful of a particular society.

Because Canada is a young country, it has had relatively few saints declared. The eight Canadian Jesuit Martyrs (St. Isaac Jogues, St. Jean de Brébeuf, St. Charles Garnier, St. Antoine Daniel, St. Gabriel Lalemant, St. Noel Chabanel, St. René Goupil and St. Jean de La Lande) were all born in France. St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, founder of the Congregation of Notre-Dame, was also born in France. It wasn’t until St. Marguerite d’Youville, founder of the Grey Nuns, canonized in 1990, that Canada had a native-born saint.

St. André Bessette becomes the second Canadian-born saint.

Canada, as much as any other country, needs saints.

“We have a rich patrimony in Canada we know little about,” said Salt + Light TV chief executive officer Fr. Tom Rosica.

In Brother André’s case it seems that this saint speaks for and to the nation of Quebec, said Anne Godbout, director of Spiritours, which organizes bus tours to the Oratory of St. Joseph in Montreal.

“He’s a Quebecois and people are proud that he’s going to be the first man born in the province of Quebec, even in Canada, to be declared a saint,” Godbout said. “People are proud of that, and people feel close to him because he’s from here.”

Each year some two-million people visit the Oratory that Brother André built in honour of St. Joseph. The Oratory becomes a testimony to what one saint has done in honour of another.

As time goes on, Brother André is becoming a saint who inspires Catholics outside of Quebec and Canada, said St. Joseph’s Oratory director Fr. Claude Grou.

Four steps to sainthood

The path to sainthood is a long, thorough process that can take several
years to complete. In the case of Br. André, it began in 1960. Here is
a summary of the path to canonization.

1. Servant of God

Typically, a person is dead five years before being considered for sainthood. A bishop oversees an initial investigation and forms a tribunal. The tribunal interviews witnesses and the candidate undergoes examination by a panel of theologians. The results of the investigation are forwarded to the Vatican, which grants a Nihal Obstat, meaning nothing hinders, and the candidate is deemed a Servant of God.

2. Venerable

An advocate for the cause, called a Postulator, takes charge of the process and must prove that the candidate lived “heroic virtues.” He examines documents and hears testimonies and delivers his findings to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in the Vatican. Upon their approval, the candidate receives the title of Venerable.

3. Blessed

A canonical investigation is conducted to verify one miracle that can be attributed to the candidate's intercession. In most cases, miracles are miraculous cures. Alternatively, the Pope can make a declaration of martyrdom. After verification of a miracle or a declaration of martyrdom the candidate is beatified and called Blessed.

4. Saint

An investigation is conducted to verify a second miracle (or, in the case of a Martyr, a first miracle) that can be attributed to the intercession of the Blessed. The second miracle normally must occur after beatification. After verifying the miracle, the candidate is canonized and declared a Saint.


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