Beatification and canonization are different concepts. Beatification is a stage in the process of canonization that takes place after a thorough investigation by the diocese and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints of the person’s life and writings to determine whether he possessed heroic virtues or suffered martyrdom. The miracle attributed to the intercession of the holy person must be proved. This proving presupposes the corresponding extraordinary commission work at the Holy See. ‘Blessed’ is the title given to a person who has been declared blessed and has the limited right to be honored, i.e., within the local diocese. The act of beatification takes place during Holy Mass in the diocese where the Servant of God, the future ‘blessed’, lived. The Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints is responsible for the beatification on behalf of the Pope.
Canonization is the official process by which the Church declares a person a saint who deserves reverence throughout the worldwide Church. The beatification takes place by the Pope in Rome during Holy Mass in St. Peter’s Square (or St. Peter’s Basilica, as the case may be).
The whole process, both beatification and canonization, is led by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
The Congregation for the Causes of Saints is an institution of the Roman Curia, established by Pope Sixtus V in 1588, originally as the Congregation for the Rites, and renamed the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in 1969 by Pope Paul VI. The congregation’s statutes were renewed in 1983 by Pope John Paul II. Since then, canonization has been a theological-historiographical study. When the investigation of the candidate for the beatification or canonization under the leadership of the congregation is completed, it is proposed to the Pope of Rome to declare the Servant of God saint or blessed. The Pope of Rome either declares the candidate blessed and saint or rejects him for further investigation. The Congregation is also responsible for the authentication and preservation of sacred relics.
There have been times in the history of the Church when the canonization was born on the principle of vox populi, i.e., with the common acclamation of the church people. It was based on the acts of martyrs during the early church, as well as the growing respect of believers for their pastors. For example, Antonius of Padua was canonized by Pope Gregory IX on May 30, 1232, at the urging of the people, only eleven months after the death of St. Anthony. To curb the uncontrolled cult of saints, ecclesiastical norms and procedures for consecration were developed. The first known official canonization as a result of an investigation commissioned by Pope John XV was in 993 in connection with Bishop Ulrich of Ausbrug.In 1634, Pope Urban VIII called for the involvement of the Vatican in all processes of consecration.
The exact number of all who have been canonized since the first centuries is unknown. Even before the end of the 10th century, the ten-volume menology of Simeon Metafrastes with acts of martyrdom had been completed. In 1988, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints published its first Index ac Status Causarum. This Latin collection and its subsequent supplements are considered a complete register of all causes submitted to the Congregation since its establishment. Volumes of this index indicate that there are 3,464 processes pending.
The process of canonization
Stage 1 – investigation of the life of the candidate of the saint
Phase 1: at the diocesan level
The process can start five years after the candidate’s death. This rule makes it possible to achieve greater balance and objectivity in the assessment of the case and to allow the emotions of the moment to dissipate. The Pope may waive this waiting period (For example, the case of the martyr of the 21st century, the French priest Jacques Hamel, executed by Islamic terrorists in 2016, the diocesan phase of the process ended in March 2019 and all documents were sent to Rome as early as April 2019).
The bishop of the diocese where the person died is responsible for initiating the investigation. The diocese, parish, religious congregation, or association requesting the opening of the process asks the postulator appointed by the bishop to begin the investigation. The bishop may also begin the process on his own initiative. After receiving nihil obstat of the Holy See, the bishop forms a diocesan tribunal for this purpose. Witnesses are invited to speak to the tribunal about specific facts about Christian virtues considered heroic (or the martyrdom of a Servant of God): it means the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, and the other virtues of his life. In addition, all documents written by the candidate must be collected and reviewed.
The bishop also consults with the regional bishops’ conference, or at least the bishops of his area, to seek their views on the merits and timeliness of starting the process. He also consults the public, asking all those who are aware of the candidate to make themselves known.
In addition, all possible archival documents concerning the life of a Servant of God are collected.
Phase 2: Congregation for the Causes of Saints
When the diocesan investigation is completed, the documents are forwarded to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
Then the Roman phase begins and the project of the beatification, or Positio, is written.
Positio is a comprehensive summary of all documents; in this context, there are two: one summarizes the investigation of the candidate’s life and heroic virtues or martyrdom, and the other the part of alleged miracles when a miracle is attributed to the Servant of God. Positio is compiled by the postulator in Rome with an expert from outside the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. All Positio compilation work in the curia is controlled by the relator.
Positio is reviewed by nine theologians who cast their votes for Positio. If most theologians are in favor, the process is referred to the Board of Cardinals and Bishops of the Congregation for investigation. If their assessment is positive, the prefect of the Congregation will present the whole process to the Pope, who will give his consent and authorize the Congregation to draw up a decree declaring the Servant of God blessed or saint. This is followed by a public reading and announcement of the decree.
Stage 2 – beatification
The beatification of the Servant of God requires a miracle attributed to his intercession after his death, which has been verified. The miracle must be proved by appropriate canon investigation, following a procedure analogous to that of heroic virtues. This investigation will also be terminated by an appropriate decree. When two decrees have been promulgated (in connection with heroic virtues or martyrdom and miracle), the Holy Father decides on the beatification, which means a limited concession of public reverence — usually only in the diocese, region, or religious community where the Servant of God lived. By beatification, the candidate receives the title of ‘blessed’.
Stage 3 – canonization
Canonization requires another miracle attributed to the intercession of the blessed, which has taken place since his beatification. The methods of affirming a miracle are the same as those with beatification. Canonization is understood as a concession and requirement of public reverence for the universal Church. With canonization, blessed acquires the title ‘saint’.
Concepts related to canonization.
Positio – the comprehensive summary of all documents; in this context, there are two: one summarizes the investigation of the candidate’s life and heroic virtues or martyrdom, and the other the alleged miracles.
Postulator – the person assigned to direct and monitor the process. One of them monitors the process at the diocesan level (Phase 1); the other, a Roman resident appointed by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, oversees all aspects of Phases 2 and 3.
Prefect – the leader of a papal congregation, usually a cardinal.
Relator – the person appointed by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to collect historical records on a candidate’s specific location and era.
Saint – the title given to someone who has been officially canonized by the Church and is therefore presented for public reverence.
Servant of God – the title given to a candidate of a saint whose process is still under investigation before the beatification.
Venerable – another honorary title given to a candidate of a saint whose process has not yet reached the stage of beatification, but whose heroic virtue has been recognized by the Pope.
Miracle – an event that is confirmed by the senses, but taht is probably born outside the laws of nature. The Church recognizes authentic miracles as divine providence in the perceptible world.
Compiled by Marge-Marie Paas
• Angelo Amato. Libro di Testo dello Studium. Vatican, 2018.
• Robert Sarno. Saints. USA Episcopal Conference. http://www.usccb.org/about/public-affairs/backgrounders/saints-backgrounder.cfm
• Sanctorum Mater. Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Instruction, 2007.
• Normae Servandae in Inquisitionibus ab. Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints, 1983.