Looking for saints: The “most successful” types of human beings
By Giancarlo La Vella – Vatican City
There are many ways to define holiness. One of them is to consider holiness as a model, or rather, the model, of beauty of the human person. This is what this Vatican Dicastery has been doing since 1969, the year of its foundation – combing through the lives of the candidates for the honors of the altar, looking for the Gospel in their lives so that every Christian might look to them as credible and, most importantly, imitable witnesses.
Behind the proclamation that someone is a Saint, there is a scrupulous, collective dedication that takes years, sometimes decades. The complex process requires the participation of people who possess various competencies for which the costs totaled about 2 million euro in 2021.
The “saint factory” is an expression that “could even work, if it is understood in the positive sense, that is, that place in which people work so as to arrive at the serious and honest presentation of persons worthy” of the title, observes the Prefect of the Dicastery, Cardinal Marcelle Semeraro, who explains how the dicastery functions.
Q: The Lord addresses the call to holiness to “all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status” (Lumen gentium). And yet from its origins, the Church has always felt the need to recognize exemplary witnesses and to “officially” accept their fidelity to the Gospel message. What role does the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints play in this process?
As the Second Vatican Council reminded us, holiness is certainly a universal vocation, for each and every person. Regarding the official recognition of the holiness of an individual Christian, we are speaking of an ancient tradition. From early on, in fact, when the news spread about some martyr, or of someone who had lived the Gospel in an exemplary way, they were proposed as models of life for everyone and as intercessors before God for the needs of the believers. Various canonical procedures and rules govern the declaration that someone is a saint. But the fundamental focus is this: the Church has always believed that its members can attain holiness and that they must be known and proposed for public veneration.
The Dicastery for the Causes of Saints follows the iter of beatification and canonization of the Servants of God, assisting the bishops through the investigation process regarding the martyrdom or the offering of their life and miracles of a faithful Catholic who, while he or she was living, while they were dying and after their death, were held to be holy, either due to martyrdom or through the offering of their lives. Those faithful Catholics whose cause for beatification and canonization has been initiated are called Servants of God. In every case, it is always necessary that there be an authentic, widespread and enduring “reputation for sanctity”, or that it is commonly believed by the Christian community that they lived an integrated life, that they exercised Christian virtue and that their lives had been fruitful.
Q: Your activity truly requires “teamwork” including the participation of postulators, witnesses, consultants, theologians, academics, doctors, cardinals, bishops. How many people are involved and how is the work of the various phases structured?
Introduced in 1983, the new norms governing the Causes of Saints greatly abbreviated the time required for a process of beatification and canonization. It is enough to think, for example, that in the past, it was necessary to wait 50 years after the death of the Servant of God before beginning to study their life, virtues or martyrdom. This is not the case today. The length of the Cause, however, depends on many factors: some are intrinsic in themselves (complexity of the person, or of the historical period in which he or she lived); others are extrinsic (the willingness, preparation or availability of the persons who work on each cause: postulators, external collaborators, witnesses, etc.).
Ease case has its own numbers: the witnesses who provide testimony in the diocesan phases can be quite a few dozen. There is also a good number of other people and specialists involved. Still regarding time, each process of beatification and canonization has its own steps: the investigation, taking of testimony, drafting the Positiones, examination conducted by theological consultors and, depending on the cause, historical consultants. Then, there is time needed to consult medical experts when there is a possible miracle of healing to examine. Once this is all completed and each step has been positive, it is then presented to the ordinary session of the members of the Dicastery, that is, the cardinals and bishops. Once the entire process has been concluded, the final word belongs to the Pope. The Prefect of the Dicastery submits the various causes to him for approval.
There are truly many cases (currently, those causes in course in Rome number almost 1,500, while those at the diocesan level number more than 600). The fact itself that not all of them are successful goes to show the seriousness of the process. This does not mean, however, that those who are not proposed for the veneration of the faithful were not exemplary people because of their witness of life.
Q: The large number of canonizations and beatifications promoted by the Dicastery is an indication of the vitality of the Church in every age. On average, of the causes in process how many are brought to conclusion each year?
The results of the last five decades the Dicastery has been operative is not only positive, but surprising. Simplifying the process had allowed the number of people proposed to the veneration of the faithful to increase. They come from every continent and belong to all the categories of the people of God.
The spiritual and pastoral benefits of these fifty years since the foundation of the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints (1969) is singular: as of the end of 2020, the total number is 3,003 beatifications and 1,479 canonizations. There are normally two Ordinary Sessions per month and four causes are examined in each of them. Therefore, the approximate number of causes brought to conclusion each year is between 80 and 90. This and other data can be accessed by visiting the Dicastery's web site that offers everyone easy and complete access to all the information about the Dicastery and the process of canonization. To date, in addition to the main documents and publications, the site contains more than a thousand entries on the blesseds and saints of the last seven pontificates, enriched with images, citations, biographies, homilies, external links and multi-media material.
Q: Often from the outside, the same vitality that raises models of Christian life to the honors of the altar is labeled “the saint factory”. Can you succinctly explain the rigor followed in the process of the beatification and canonization of a candidate?
The expression could even work, if it is understood in the positive sense, that is, that place in which people work so as to arrive at the serious and honest presentation of persons worthy of being proposed as models of holiness. While the number of candidates is considerable, it is nevertheless important to add that this does not detract from the Dicastery's accuracy, deepening and authority.
Beginning with the “reputation of sanctity and signs” perceived by the people of God, the investigation undergoes its first phase in the diocese (the process is open, testimony and documents are gathered, a tribunal is formed with theological and historical experts). Once the cause comes to Rome, a relator is assigned to it who guides the postulator in preparing the volume in which the evidence gathered in the diocese is synthesized so as to accurately reconstruct their life and to demonstrate their virtues or martyrdom as well as their relative reputation for holiness and signs of holiness that the Servant of God enjoyed. This is the Positio which is then studied by a group of theologians and, in the case of a “ancient Cause” (regarding a candidate who lived a long time ago and for which there are no eyewitnesses), even by a Historical Commission. If these votes are favorable, the dossier is submitted to the further judgment of the Cardinals and Bishops of the Dicastery. If, in the end, these too are favorable, the Holy Father can authorize the promulgation of the Decree of heroic virtues or the martyrdom or the offering of the life of the Servant of God, who then becomes venerable. He or she is recognized to have exercised the Christian virtues (theological: faith, hope and charity; cardinal: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance; others: poverty, chastity, obedience, humility, etc.) to a “heroic” degree, or to have undergone an authentic martyrdom, or of having offered his or her life according to the requirements outlined by the Dicastery.
Beatification is the intermediary stage in view of canonization. If the candidate is declared a martyr, he or she becomes a Blessed immediately, otherwise it is necessary that a miracle be recognized owed to his or her intercession. Generally, this miraculous event is a healing held to be scientifically unexplainable, judged so by a Medical Commission composed of specialists, both believers and non-believers. First the theological consultants and then the Cardinals and Bishops of the Dicastery also pronounce themselves on these miracles and the Holy Father authorizes the relative decree. In order to be canonized, that is, so that a person can be declared a Saint, a second miracle that took place after the beatification must be attributed to the Blessed’s efficacious intercession.
More than a “factory” that constantly produces saints, the Dicastery is then, the Dicastery of the Roman Curia that, with centuries-old experience is specialized in recognizing them and with great diligence, expertise, and scientific rigor carries forward a process that verifies if a member of the faithful lived a high degree of holiness, in such a way as to be proposed as a model for the universal Church.
Q: In the Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et exsultate, the Pope speaks of the “middle class of holiness”. How can these “saints next door” be recognized and offered as examples to the community of believers?
Gaudete et exsultate is a beautiful manifesto regarding the call to holiness in today’s world because the saints show us the possibilities of living the Gospel, not only those who are already beatified or canonized, but also those whom the Pope himself calls “the saints next door” who live near us and are “reflections of God’s presence”: “parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile” (n. 7) in a world that no longer knows how to hope and that is indifferent before the sufferings of others.
The proof of holiness for the Church is precisely small actions performed each day. The holiness of the “saints next door” is that lived every day by Christians who, in every part of the world, bear witness to Jesus’s love and risk their own lives without ever taking into account their own particular interests.
The saints become the most successful and beautiful models of humanity. In the Exhortation Gaudete et exsultate, the Pope wrote that holiness shows the “most beautiful face of the Church” (n. 9). We can also state that, in the last decades, the veneration of the saints has once again become a considerable part of the life of the Church who recognized the need of their witness for the community of believers. The “contemporariness” of a saint is not so much due to their chronological proximity – even if there are many causes concluded or in course of blessed and saints who are our contemporaries – as it is due to a person who was complete, rich in human and Christian passion, the desired the supernatural, hungered for justice, for the love of God and of being in solidarity with each brother or sister.
Q: With the new norms introduced in 2016, Pope Francis recommended vigilance regarding the administration of goods and that costs be contained regarding the causes. A “solidarity fund” also exists for cases in which there were difficulties in sustaining the costs. How did the Pontiff’s indications affect your “mission budget”?
Under various aspects, a cause for beatification is a complex and detailed process. As such, there are certain costs associated with the work of the commissions, the printing of documents, meetings of experts (historical and theological tasked with the study of the documentation or doctors when it comes to miracles). The Dicastery is always attentive to contain costs so that the economic factor might not be an obstacle for Causes to move forward. In this sense, the administrative norms approved by the Holy Father in 2016 guarantee transparent and regular administration. Funded in various ways, a “Solidarity Fund” administered by the Dicastery has been established for those Causes having fewer resources. Other ways of supporting them are under study.
Q: In the “liquid” society hypothesized by Bauman, holiness always seems to be a choice that goes against the tide. What are the new challenges the Dicastery is called to face so as to propose once again the attractiveness of evangelical radicality?
We live in this “liquid society”, aware of the opportunity but also of the risks. The Church is not new to these pitfalls to the faith and to the credibility of Christianity. Second-century Christians already had to face objections against their faith in Jesus the Messiah; the same thing had already emerged during his public life as was reported by Saint Justin in the Dialogue with Trypho: “But how is it possible that the Messiah has already come if things have not changed, if peace has not been established, if Israel is still enslaved to the Romans, if the world is the same as it was before?” The Christians would respond: “It is true, yes, many things are as they were before, they have not changed. But, if you really want to look at reality, you can also observe the new things, wonderful extraordinary, as, for example, the fraternity among the Christians, the sharing of goods, the faith, their courage under persecution, joy in tribulation. You can see wondrous things. Certainly, the kingdom of God has not yet come in its definitive fullness. It has come in seed form, but it has truly come and is growing, it is developing in the midst of the Christian community.” According to the parable in the Gospel, saints are truly matured seeds who bear much fruit.
Fundamentally, holiness is always the same but it is also new in concrete people as the Second Vatican Council reminded us (Lumen gentium, 41). It takes on different expressions in the martyrs, in consecrated virgins, in hermits, in monks, in the Church’s pastors, in the leaders of nations, in the mendicant orders, in missionaries, in contemplatives, in educators, in the saints of social charity. It is enough to scan the list of saints from these last fifty years since the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints was established to see how many seeds have matured from the Council who had point out that holiness is a universal vocation and not the privilege of a few elect. There is one holiness which is the reflection of that of Christ who impresses on each person an unrepeatable and personal imprint. It is like love: extremely unique and personal.
As for the challenges, they are the same for the Dicastery as for the Church and her presence in the world. The Church is a means of belief both because of the objective holiness of the faith, the sacraments, the charisms, and because of the subjective holiness of Christians. It is what is professed in the article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe…in the communion of saints”, which means the communion of the means of holiness and of men and women who are saints.
Every saint promotes the growth and unity of the entire body of the Church. Each saint is aware that his or her task is the one mission of the Church. The saints are complete people, they lived with human and Christian passion, rich in human and Christian passion, they desired for the supernatural, hungered for justice, for the love of God and of being in solidarity with each brother or sister. Christians intuitively perceive the credibility of faith in Jesus Christ, referring both to His own biographical events as well as to His ongoing presence in the Church, especially in the saints.
Note to the reader: this article was updated on 1 July 2022 to reflect the new name of the Dicastery, previously known as the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, changed by the Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium.