Canonization of Saints: History and Procedure

Robert J Sarno. New Catholic Encyclopedia Supplement 2010. Editor: Robert L Fastiggi. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2010.

All mankind was created in the image and likeness of God. Because of Original Sin mankind lost the likeness of God in the soul. The mysterious plan of God was gradually revealed first to the people of Israel and through them to all humanity. God would send His Son the God-man, Jesus Christ as Messiah and Savior. Only God could make total satisfaction for the original sin, and only a human being could express sorrow and repentance for the sin committed. Christians are called to participate in the plan of God and to conform their lives to that of Christ. Thus, all men and women are called to be saints. The universal call to holiness is extended by the gracious will of God to all mankind in order that, at the end of this earthly pilgrimage, men and women might live forever in heaven with God.

The holiness that is required for canonization, however, is evidenced in the Christian who either has freely given his life in witness to the faith by accepting martyrdom (a martyr) or has practiced all the Christian virtues in a heroic manner and has died a natural death (confessor). The martyr and the confessor are the object of the grace of God given them for a particular moment in the history of the Church and mankind. The canonized saint has conformed his life more closely to that of Christ by responding to this grace. Having discerned the activity of the Holy Spirit in the Christian, the Church proposes to the faithful the saint as a model for the faithful on how to live the faith and an intercessor before God for their moments of difficulty in this life.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 828, states: “By canonizing some of the faithful, i.e., by solemnly proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace, the Church recognizes the power of the Spirit of holiness within her and sustains the hope of believers by proposing the saints to them as models and intercessors” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 828). This definition makes no reference to the martyr who has followed Christ most closely by imitating the greatest act of love accomplished on calvary. A definition more theological in its perspective can be found in the introduction of the Apostolic Constitution The Divine Teacher and Model of Perfection, promulgated by Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) on January 25, 1983. It states: “From time immemorial the Apostolic See … has proposed, for the imitation, veneration and invocation by the faithful, men and women who are outstanding in the splendor of charity and other evangelical virtues and, after due consideration, has declared them to be among the Saints in the solemn act of canonization.” A definition from a canonical perspective may be found in the entry Saints and blessed.


Soon after its beginning the primitive Church venerated the memory of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the angel, who had participated more closely in the salvific work of Jesus Christ. To this was added the apostles who were his closest collaborators in the preaching and spreading of the Christian faith. The Christian faithful soon venerated also the holy men and women of the Old Testament since they too shared in a particular way in the plan of God for the salvation of mankind through Jesus Christ. The Blessed Mother, the apostles, and figures such as David and Elijah of the Old Testament were given the title of “Saint” simply by popular devotion and general acclamation.

Martyrdom was the primordial experience of Church of the first three centuries, which gave rise to what is called the cult or the veneration of the martyrs. The persecution of the early Christians gave rise to the veneration of those who had given witness to the faith, preferring a violent death to denying the faith. (The Greek word for giving witness is marturein, which is translated in English as the word “martyr.”) Because the martyrs had more closely followed Christ and had given their lives in this bloody manner, the early Christians considered them as models for imitation to likewise attain the crown of victory in heaven. They gathered around their tombs in the catacombs in prayer and in celebration of the Eucharist, and they invoked their aid and intercession before the throne of God. Three elements are common to this early experience. From a moral standpoint, the martyr was considered an object of veneration by the faithful because he was a model for their imitation, and the martyr was invoked as an intercessor because he was now living in the presence of God. From a liturgical standpoint, the memory of the martyr was venerated by the faithful in a liturgical manner.

In AD 313 the experience of the early Church changed radically. The emperor Constantine I signed the Edict of Milan and proclaimed religious toleration in the Roman Empire. On the heels of its new found freedom, the early Church began to venerate more heroes of the faith. The canonization or proclamation of an individual as a saint was accomplished by the translatio corporis (transfer of the body). The body of the saint was exhumed from the catacombs and solemnly transferred to a Basilica newly built in his or her honor. There, the relics could be preserved and the memory of the saint honored by the faithful in a more dignified and fitting manner. The popular conviction about the holiness of the individual was the deciding factor for his or her canonization. Although there is no historical evidence that any juridical investigation of the sanctity of the individual was conducted by the local bishop, it is safe to conclude that the translatio corporis could and would not have been conducted without his express consent.

The vocation of the Christian to follow Christ closely and to attain salvation has been a constant in the life of the Church. The Christian is called to practice all the Christian virtues, that is, the theological and cardinal virtues, as well as all other virtues connected to them. The Christian worthy of canonization, that is, proposed to the faithful for imitation, intercession, and veneration, is one who has lived all these virtues in a heroic or extraordinary manner. These early centuries saw the beginnings of desert spirituality and monastic life as responses to the vocation to follow Christ in a more radical way, thereby attaining entrance into heaven. St. Benedict, in the West, and St. Basil, in the East, established rules of Christian living which are still today the keystones of religious life.

From the fifth through the twelfth centuries, canonizations were performed by the local bishop. Some bishops, however, did invite the Bishop of Rome to preside over these ceremonies in order to give greater importance to the saint. It would seem that a parallel theological development occurred. On the one hand, a saint was considered a universal figure because holiness is the vocation common to all Christians. On the other hand, universal jurisdiction in the Church was seen more and more as the prerogative of the Supreme Pontiff alone. It followed logically then that only the Roman Pontiff could canonize or declare someone a saint.

Papal intervention in this area of Church life became necessary also because of the abuses evidenced in the granting of veneration to individuals. Around AD 1180, Pope ALexander III (c. 1100/1105-1181) wrote to a bishop informing him that he had no right to canonize a monk, whom the bishop had declared to be a martyr after his being killed in a bar-room brawl. In this letter Alexander stated clearly that canonization was the prerogative of the Roman Pontiff alone. Soon after the reservation of canonization to the Roman Pontiff became universal Church law in AD 1234, when Pope Gregory IX (1227-1241) inserted the letter of Alexander III into the Decretals, a collection of laws for the universal Church.

Episcopal canonizations, however, continued unabated for quite some time. On January 22, 1588, Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590) promulgated the constitution Immensa aeterni Dei and thereby established the Roman Curia to assist him in the governance of the Church. The Congregation of Sacred Rites was charged with overseeing the liturgical or ritual life of the Church that included the canonizations of saints. New procedural norms were decreed. In AD 1642 Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644) published a collection of decrees under the title Urbani VIII Pontificis Optimi Maximi Decreta servanda in Canonizatione et Beatificatione Sanctorum. Accedunt Instructiones, et Declarationes quas Em.mi et Rev.mi S.R.E. Cardinales Praesulesque Romanae Curiae ad id muneris congregati ex eiusdem Summi Ponitificis mandato condiderunt.

During the seventeenth century, the theological significance of the saint for the Church remained unchanged. The saint is an object of special veneration by the faithful since he or she is a model for imitation and an intercessor before God, as well as an object of veneration in the liturgical life of the Church. The martyrdom or heroic virtues and the miracles attributed to his or her intercesson were to be ascertained by means of a canonical or investigative process. The decrees of Urban VIII organized and regulated the granting of veneration to the saint. They established rules regarding the process which the local bishop was to follow in order to obtain papal, and thereby universal Church, recognition of those who had been the objects of some form of veneration by the local Church.

The decrees also established regulations regarding cult or veneration, which was prohibited in the cases of those individuals who were not the objects of veneration duly authorized by the pope. The decrees required the bishops to eliminate unauthorized veneration. If for pastoral reasons this were not possible, the already existing veneration could be tolerated. It certainly could not be increased without following the specific process ordered by the decrees leading to canonization by the Supreme Pontiff. This last set of regulations regarding cult or veneration is the only legislation recognized as still in force by the new laws in the causes of saints promulgated in 1983.

The activity of the Roman Congregation during this period of history may be found in the magisterial work of Prospero Lambertini, then Promotor General of the Congregation for Sacred Rites, and later Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758). The historiography De Servorum Dei Beatificatione et Beatorum Canonizatione was published in Bologna (Italy) in four volumes in 1725. It describes in detail the canonical procedures in use at the time and presents systematically the theological concepts of martyrdom, heroicity of virtues, the virtues themselves, and miracles.

The twentieth century saw great advancements in historiography and medical science. These developments were incorporated into ecclesiastical legislation in the causes of saints. In 1917 the Code of Canon Law was published, and the laws regarding beatification and canonization were codified in canons 1999-2141. There were two distinct processes to obtain the BEATIFICATION and canonization of Servants of God from the Supreme Pontiff. The first process is covered in canons 2037-2124 and deals with the causes of Servants of God who have never been objects of public and ecclesiastical veneration. The second is dealt with in canons 2124-2141 and regards those causes of Servants of God, traditionally called Blessed, who were objects of such veneration, and which were to proceed per viam cultus or as an exception made by the Decrees of Urban VIII.

In both cases the local bishop initiated the process on his own authority (Ordinary Process). The purpose of this process was twofold: to inform the holy see (Informative Process) about the existence of an authentic and widespread reputation of holiness (fama sanctitatis) or martyrdom (fama martyrii), as well as any intercessory power (fama signorum) enjoyed by the Servant of God among the faithful, and to verify that there was no preemptive obstacle to the cause in the published writings of the Servant of God. Once these two elements were proven, the Holy See published the Decree of Introduction of the Cause and gave the local bishop the authority to gather the evidence on the martyrdom or heroic virtues of the Servant of God (Apostolic Process). This evidence consisted primarily in eyewitness testimony (de visu) and hearsay or secondhand testimony (de auditu a videntibus). Double hearsay testimony (de auditu ab audientibus) was also admitted, whereas documentary evidence was given secondary or adminincular probative value.

The evidence was sent to the Congregation of Sacred Rites, which was charged with preparing a position paper on either the martyrdom (Positio super Martyrio) or the heroic virtues (Positio super Virtutibus) of the Servant of God. The Positio, as it is commonly called, was examined by the theological consultors of the Congregation and finally by its cardinal members. The results of these discussions were presented to the Supreme Pontiff, who alone made the definitive judgment regarding the martyrdom or the heroic virtues of the Servant of God and granted the title of “Venerable.” Miracles were required for the beatification of the Venerable Servant of God, and more miracles, which occurred after the solemn beatification, were required for his or her canonization. The eyewitness evidence for miracles was to be gathered in an Apostolic Process instructed by the bishop where the supposed miracle took place.

On February 6, 1930, Pope Pius XI (1922-1939) published the Apostolic Letter “Già da qualche tempo,” thereby instituting the Historical Section of the Congregation of Sacred Rites. The duty of this office was to study historical causes the proofs of which were taken from documentary evidence alone. On January 4, 1939, the same Pontiff published the “Norms to be observed in constructing the ordinary processes in historical causes.” In such historical causes the Ordinary Process, instructed by the local bishop on his own authority, was the only canonical process. The other evidence in the cause was to be gathered under the direct guidance of the Historical Section.

Miracles were to be investigated according to the norms of canon law. Experts in the specific field of the supposedly miraculous occurrence were to be employed. Their role was to ascertain with moral certitude that there was no scientific explanation for what had taken place. In 1948 Pope PIUS XII (1939-1958) reorganized the norms of canon law and established the Medical Board as an integral part of the Congregation of Sacred Rites.

In 1959 Pope John XXIII (1959-1963) established a Pontifical Commission for the reformation of the Code of Canon Law. Since the Code contained canons regarding the causes of saints, this reformation was to include also the manner of instructing causes. Legislative changes were to meet two criteria. First, the needs of experts and the desire of bishops to have a more simple process were to be met. Second, the soundness of the investigation was strictly to be maintained.

On March 19, 1969, Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) published motu proprio the Apostolic Letter “Sanctitas clarior.” He established that, even in recent causes whose proofs are gathered from eyewitness testimony, one process, the Cognitional Process, was to be instructed by the local bishop. In line with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on SUBSIDIARITY, the local bishop was now able to instruct the Cognitional Process and thereby initiate a case of canonization on his own authority. He could do this, however, only after having first attained permission from the Holy See. On May 8, 1969, Paul VI published the Apostolic Constitution Sacra Rituum Congregatio. In place of the Congregation of Sacred Rites, he esablished two Congregations, that for the Causes of Saints and that for divine worship and the discipline pf the sacraments.

On January 25, 1983, Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) promulgated the new Code of Canon Law, in which only canon 1403 deals with causes of canonization. Paragraph 1 simply states that causes of saints are governed by particular pontifical law. Paragraph 2 affirms that procedural norms of the Code are to be applied when the particular pontifical law makes specific reference to it (which the new law never does), or when a question arises about something which, by its very nature, regards the norms of the Code (which it does, and fairly often). In the Code of Canons of the Oriental Churches, which was promulgated seven years later in 1990, only canon 1057 deals with the causes of saints. It states that the special norms established by the Roman Pontiff are to be observed so that Servants of God may be listed among the saints. Thus, the particular law in the causes of saints is the legislation in force for the Latin Church and for all Eastern Churches.

On the very same day, January 25, 1983, the Supreme Pontiff also promulgated the Apostolic Constitution Divinus perfectionis Magister (The Divine Teacher and Model of Perfection; hereafter DPM). This legislation established the procedural norms for the causes of saints and effected an organic restructuring of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The pope also gave the Congregation the authority to publish particular norms that would govern the canonical process on the martyrdom or heroic virtues of Servants of God as well as the miracles attributed to their intercession. The Congregation published the Normae servandae in Inquisitionibus ab Episcopis faciendis in Causis Sanctorum (Norms to Be Observed in Inquiries Made by Bishops in the Causes of Saints; hereafter NS) on February 7, 1983.


The new legislation presents a number of organic and procedural changes. The terminology employed marks a vast departure from the strictly canonical language of all past legislation. First of all, the process to be instructed by the local bishop is called the “inquiry.” This creates the impression that the legislation does not require a juridical process for the attainment of moral certitude regarding the holiness of the Servant of God, but rather a simple administrative act of the bishop. Second, the judge of former legislation is now called the “Episcopal Delegate.” This departure from canonical terminology highlights the fact that the sole judge in causes of saints is the Supreme Pontiff. By the very nature of the office, however, the Episcopal Delegate has all the powers given a judge by universal law in any canonical process. Third, the word “tribunal” is never used. The new law instead speaks of the officials nominated by the bishop to instruct the inquiry. Historical causes, as defined by the legislation of Pope Pius XI, are now referred to as “ancient causes” in order to emphasize the fact that all causes, both recent and nonrecent, have a historical element. Finally, the word “beatification” is never used. The framers of the legislation thought that the canonical institute of beatification could be eliminated without having to change the text of the legislation.

The first procedural change regards the norm established by the Apostolic Constitution Sanctitas clarior of Pope Paul VI. DPM 1.1 unequivally affirms: “It is the competence of diocesan Bishops or Bishops of the Eastern Rites and others who have the same powers in law, within the limits of their own jurisdiction … to inquire about the life, virtues or martyrdom and reputation of sanctity or martyrdom, alleged miracles” (DPM I.1). It is, therefore, the right of the local bishop to initiate a cause of canonization without having first obtained the permission of the Holy See to do so. Before he initiates the cause, however, he must verify its theological foundation (fumus iuris), which is the existence of an authentic and widespread reputation of holiness or martyrdom, and of the intercessory power that the Servant of God enjoys among a large portion of the faithful, in accordance with NS 3b. It is the prime duty of the postulator of the cause—that is, the canonical representative of the promoter or petitioner of the cause—to conduct thoroughly the investigations into the fumus iuris and report his findings to the bishop, who only then may make the decision to initiate the cause (NS 3b).

The new legislation reaffirms and thereby definitively establishes that only one inquiry or process is to be instructed by the local bishop. First, the distinction, established by the Code of Canon Law of 1917, between causes that proceeded according to cult and noncult, is abolished. Furthermore, the change, effected by the legislation of Pius XI in 1939 regarding historical or ancient causes, and their extension also to recent causes, ordered by the legislation of Paul VI in 1969, is now definitively required in all causes of saints. A cause of canonization, whether recent or ancient, whether it regards noncult or cult, is now to be instructed in two phases. The first phase, which is called the “diocesan” or “eparchial” phase, takes place in the territory where the Servant of God died, in accordance with NS 5a. There is also one singular procedure to be followed during the inquiry. First, the documentary evidence, which consists of the published writings and the unpublished writings of the Servant of God, as well as all other documents which regard the cause, is collected, in accordance with NS 13 and 14, respectively. Secondly, on the basis of this material the Promoter of Justice of the cause then prepares the questions to be asked of the witnesses, in accordance with NS 15a. This procedure highlights another innovation of the new legislation. In contrast to the Code of Canon Law of 1917, the new legislation places the probative value of documentary evidence on an equal par with the testimony of witnesses.

The second or “Roman” phase of a cause of canonization is composed of two parts. The first part is that during which all of the evidence, gathered by the local bishop during the diocesan or eparchial inquiry, is studied by a relator together with a collaborator who may be either the Roman postulator of the cause or someone qualified for the task. A “relator” is a new juridical figure, created by the legislation of 1983, whose duty it is to prepare the Positio either on the martyrdom or the heroic virtues of the Servant of God. The relator is a member of a College of Relators who represent the major language, and therefore cultural, groups of the world. It is interesting to note that the first Positio written in English was that on the heroic virtues of St. Katherine Drexel, foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Afro-American People. This innovation has also enabled to advance causes from countries with few or no saints, for example, the cause of St. Josephine Bakhita, a native of Sudan.

The second part of the Roman phase of a cause is that of judgment. Here there is no radical departure from past legislation. If a cause is ancient it must first pass the scrutiny of the historical consultants of the Congregation. All causes, ancient and recent, must be judged by the theological consultants. The results of these meetings are then passed on to the cardinals and bishops who are duly appointed by the Supreme Pontiff as members of the Congregation. If all these results are affirmative, they are brought to the attention of the pope for his final judgment.

His decisions in these matters cover three possibilities. If he declares that the Servant of God either was a martyr for the faith or a confessor of the faith, that is, that he or she practiced all the Christian virtues in a heroic manner, the Decree on Martyrdom or on Heroic Virtues is promulgated by the Roman Congregation, and the Servant of God is granted the title “Venerable Servant of God.” It is not to be found in any legislative text but rather simply the practice of the Holy See that, in the case of the martyr, no miracle is required for beatification of the Venerable Servant of God. Likewise, in the case of the confessor, one miracle, that has occurred after the death of the Venerable Servant of God and been judged to have been granted through his or her intercession, is required for beatification.

As regards the canonization of all those who are beatified, one miracle, that has occurred after the beatification of the Blessed and been judged to have been granted through his or her intercession, is required for canonization. When all is ready for the canonization according to law, the cause of the Blessed is brought into Consistory. During this solemn celebration, the Supreme Pontiff asks the opinion of the cardinals and bishops who are present in the vicinity of the city of Rome whether he should proceed to the canonization of the Blessed. During one of the Consistories of the early twenty-first century, the canonization of Bl. Damien De Veuster, known as Damien of Molokai (Hawaii), a Belgian priest of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts, was approved. St. Damien was canonized on October 11, 2009, in Rome, where all canonizations are celebrated by the Supreme Pontiff.

On May 17, 2007, the Roman Congregation published an Instruction entitled Mother of the Saints (Sanctorum Mater). According to the canonical nature of an instruction, Mother of the Saints is neither new legislation nor a correction of the already existing norms, but rather a practical guide for the implementation of already existing norms. It is intended for the bishops and for all those who participate in the diocesan or eparchial inquiry. Its introduction clearly states that its goal is to safeguard the seriousness of the inquiry and “to clarify the dispositions of currently existing laws in the causes of Saints, to facilitate their application and indicate the ways of executing them both in recent and in ancient causes.”

A few clarifications provided by the Instruction are important to note. First, it maintains the terminology of the legislation of 1983. The words “tribunal,” “judge,” and “process” are never utilized. Beatification is quite constantly referred to as an integral and intermediate part of the whole process that leads to canonization. Second, it reiterates that the inquiry is an authentic process governed by specific canonical norms contained in universal and particular legislation. It is evident from a simple reading of the text that there is only one process for all causes, whether recent or ancient—despite the confusion created by Article 33, §1, which seems to imply that there is a separate process for causes which require the confirmation of cult according to the Decrees of Urban VIII. The procedure to be employed in the process is also the same for all causes. All documentary evidence in the cause is to be collected before that of eyewitnesses. Third, the Instruction affirms quite clearly that the local bishop has the authority to initiate a cause of beatification and canonization. Thus, the nihil obstat of the Holy See, which is required by NS 15c, is not permission of the Holy See to initiate the cause as was once required by former legislation. It is simply a declaration that there is no obstacle to the cause which perhaps is known only to the Holy See. Finally, the juridical nature of the postulator as an ex parte participant in the process is more clearly presented. The postulator may offer assistance during the inquiry within the limits allowed by law, but, as stated in Article 19, §2, “may not gather in a juridical manner either the documentary proofs or the eventual oral depositions of witnesses in the cause.”

The new legislation in the causes of saints has incorporated the developments of the various fields of human knowledge and the theological insights of previous centuries. The necessity to speed up the process and to maintain the seriousness of the investigation is its goal. Through a canonical process the Church interprets the signs of the times and offers men and women, outstanding in charity and in the other evangelical virtues, for the imitation and veneration of, and invocation by, the faithful. As the introduction of DPM states: “Surrounded as we are by so many witnesses, through whom God is present to us and speaks to us, we are drawn to reach His Kingdom in heaven by great virtue”; in short, we are drawn to become saints.