How to Become a Saint

Saints image from Wikimedia Commons

During his recent visit to the United States, Pope Francis declared that Junipero Serra, the founder of the California missions, is now a saint. The first Roman Catholic canonization ceremony to take place in the United States was attended by 25,000 people. Serra is now the patron saint of California and of Hispanic Americans. This decision was celebrated by many, but it was also highly controversial. To Native Americans, Serra is far from a saint – his missions forced the local Indians to give up their culture and religion, made them do all of the work on the mission, whipped or branded those who were seen as disobedient, and even forced Indians to marry people the priests selected. Serra’s defenders insist he was protecting the Indians from worse treatment at the hands of the conquistadors, and that sainthood does not mean that a person is perfect. In response to the news, protesters vandalized the mission in Carmel where Serra was buried.

This all begs the question – who gets to decide who is a saint or not, and how is that decision made?

According to the book Why Do Catholics Do That by Kevin Orlin Johnson, Ph.D., any person who goes to heaven is technically a saint. This is the way the authors of the Bible used the term. This means that technically what Pope Francis did was to declare that, in Catholic doctrine, St. Junipero Serra is in heaven with God. This is why Catholic and Orthodox Christians practice intercessory prayer. The idea is that saints are closer to God than you are, and they can pray to Him on your behalf, like a turbocharged prayer chain. This is also why the Archangel Michael and Angel Gabriel are considered saints.

In the early history of the Christian faith, those martyrs who died for the faith were the first to be venerated by the Church as saints, and later faithful Christian figures who had exemplified a life of “heroic virtue”, so-called “confessors”, were included as well. Often, these were figures who had either suffered and overcame hardship because of their faith, or who led admirable, meritorious lives.

However, the early Church’s process for determining who was a saint was… well… there really wasn’t one. Early celebrations of saints were a spontaneous, bottom-up, folk practice by individual Christians. The saints that are still honored from that period are the ones who were the most popular. This could be a problem, as sometimes we wound up with saints that might not have actually existed. Saint Brigid of Ireland is believed by some scholars to actually be a Christianized version of the pagan goddess Brigid, and celebrations of Saint Christopher were removed from the Catholic religious calendar after scholars concluded he was actually Saint Menas, “Christopher” (Christ-bearer) simply being a title people gave St. Menas after he died.

As you can imagine, it wasn’t long before church leaders decided it was high time somebody established some rules.

Blessing of the Colours by John Lavery

Because Bishops love rules.

In the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo, who lived in the 5th century AD, we see that bishops had taken over the process of determining sainthood. Each bishop had the authority to decide that somebody could be honored as a saint within their jurisdiction. It is from this basis that the various traditions of the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches determining who is a saint evolved.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, this process is called “glorification” and it begins when believers report posthumous miracles. After enough miracles have occurred to get the local bishop’s attention, the bishop (or, more usually, a group of bishops) will investigate the matter. If the bishops are sure that the individual was Orthodox, determine that he or she led an exemplary life, and confirm that the miracles are genuine, they will hold a service formally adding the person’s name to the Orthodox Calendar of Saints. It should be noted that the Eastern Orthodox Church also allows this whole process to be skipped if the individual was a martyr for the faith; this is why the last Tsar of Russia and his family are considered saints by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Similarly, churches in the Anglican Communion, such as the Church of England or the Episcopal Church, accept people as saints by a vote of the church leaders. Among the historical figures accepted as saints by Anglican churches are King Charles I of England, Martin Luther, and John Calvin.

Pope Francis image from Agencia Brasil

Of course, the church that has by far the highest bar to pass to become a saint is the Roman Catholic Church. The process of canonization for Catholic saints is a multi-step process that can take many years.

  1. Be dead for five years. The Catholic church likes to take its time making decisions regarding sainthood. As Johnson writes in his book, “You have to wait for the dust to settle… so that evidence will stand on its own, uncolored by personal affection or hostility.” However, the pope can waive the five-year requirement in extraordinary cases, as John Paul II did for Mother Teresa.
  2. Get proclaimed a “Servant of God” by your local bishop. This is harder than it sounds. Usually, a bishop has to receive a petition from his parishioners to begin the process, and then has to launch a formal investigation into the life of the individual. The bishop will look into anything and everything the candidate wrote or said and try to gather as many eyewitness accounts of the person’s life as possible.
  3. Be deemed venerable. Once the bishop has created a detailed biography of the Servant of God, he will present the candidate to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, who will then assign the case to a postulator. The postulator will gather even more information, and the body of the candidate will be dug up for examination by church officials. It is at this point that any relics are taken from the body. (Gross.) Eventually, once the congregation is satisfied, it will ask the pope to proclaim the candidate’s heroic virtue. If the pope approves, the person will be deemed “venerable”, and Catholics can pray for a miraculous sign from God that this person should be canonized.
  4. Be beatified. Beatification is one step below sainthood, and people who are beatified can be called “blessed”, as in Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, as Mother Teresa is now formally known in the Catholic Church. In order to be beatified, one of two conditions has to have happened: (a) the person was a martyr who died for his or her faith, or (b) a posthumous miracle must have occurred because of the intercession of the candidate.
  5. At long last, be sainted by the Pope. This also requires a miracle, meaning that martyrs only need one miracle to achieve sainthood while a non-martyr needs two.

This is another reason the canonization of Junipero Serra was so controversial – he didn’t meet the “two miracle” requirement. Many people rankled at the perceived bending of the rules in Pope Francis’s declaration.

There is an exception to the above rules, though. In what is called Equipollent Canonization, a procedure introduced by Pope Benedict XIV in the 18th century, the Pope formally accepts a saint that was venerated at the grass-roots level the old-fashioned way, as the early Church had done. Equipollent Canonization was not to be taken lightly, though. In order for the Vatican to recognize such saints, the candidate had to have been honored in this way for a very long time, the accounts of the person’s life must be verified by historians to be a virtuous one, and there must be many, many years’ worth of recorded and accepted miracles. Again, Serra falls short of meeting these criteria.

Still, the Catholic Church insists that declarations of sainthood are infallible. Plus, in our modern age where it is much easier to use science to explain things that were once unknowable, miracles are harder to come by.

I suppose there is only one way to know for sure who is a saint or not…

Honestly? I don't want to know THAT badly.

Honestly? I don’t want to know THAT badly.