John Paul I served as Pope for only 33 days before his unexpected death in the fall of 1978. Pope Francis has recognized that John Paul I lived the Christian virtues in a heroic way and so declared him “venerable”—a step on the path to being declared an official saint.
In his general audience on September 13, 1978, Pope John Paul I offered words of wisdom for us today: “Let us try to improve the church by becoming better ourselves. Each of us and the whole church could recite the prayer I am accustomed to reciting: ‘Lord, take me as I am, with my defects, with my shortcomings, but make me become as you want me to be.’” This man, known for his humility, is a certainly a role model for us today!
Canonization—Recognizing and Proclaiming a Saint
Heaven is full of saints, people who led such Gospel-driven lives that they have achieved union with God. You probably have known some in your life, yet it is unlikely the Church will ever be able to say for sure that they are in Heaven. We celebrate them on All Saints’ Day, along with millions of other holy people through the ages who have followed the commandments, lived the Beatitudes, loved God, and loved their neighbors.
Canonized saints are those people who the Church is sure are in Heaven. We call them by name, and churches are named after them: Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Thomas More, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, and thousands more. These are the people we try to imitate and call on to ask God to help us when we’re in trouble. Their names are included in the canon—the list of official saints recognized by the Church.
In the early days of the Church when many Christians died for their faith, it was easy to identify a saint. Because all martyrs go to Heaven, anyone who died rather than deny Jesus was considered a saint. Or if enough people learned about an especially virtuous person, he or she might be regarded as a saint in a particular area. The whole Church might then accept that person as a saint.
Since around the year 1000, however, the Church has been very careful about the investigation it does before naming a saint. It looks into every aspect of a person’s life. It interviews people who knew the candidate. It reads everything the candidate wrote. It prays for guidance. It takes its time. It does everything it can to avoid a mistake.
Suppose an especially virtuous man dies. Everyone who knew him, or about him, feels he went right to Heaven because of his heroic virtue. But the Church has decided that no cause—the process for making a saint—can be undertaken fewer than five years after the person’s death. That’s to prevent the Church from being influenced by the emotion surrounding the candidate’s death. Only the Pope can suspend this rule. Pope John Paul II did so for Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and Pope Benedict XVI did so for Pope John Paul II. The cause of these two people moved ahead before the end of the five-year waiting period.
But the cause of this man has to wait. Five years after his death, the bishop of the diocese where he lived asks the Vatican for permission to begin a sainthood cause for him. There is no objection, and a cause is begun. The candidate for sainthood is called a “Servant of God.”
The diocese’s job now is to find as much as it can about this man through the testimony of those who knew him and through his public and private writings. They look at his high school essays, his graduation speech, even his letters from summer camp and his email. If the diocese decides he is a worthy candidate, it forwards its findings to the Vatican, where several committees must decide if his cause lives or dies. If it lives, the Pope makes the final decision to proclaim him “Venerable.” He becomes known as a “Venerable Servant of God” or just “Venerable.”
Becoming “Blessed”—The Process of Beatification
Before the Venerable Servant of God can be called “Blessed,” the Church must confirm that a miracle has occurred due to the intercession of the candidate. This shows that the candidate can intercede at the throne of God for a confirmed miracle to occur. A miracle shows that a candidate does indeed live with God. The investigation of a miracle begins in the diocese in which it occurred. First, it must be proved that there is no natural way the miraculous event could have happened. Then the people who were praying for the miracle must testify that in their prayers, they were asking this person to intercede for them. A panel of scientists and theologians must confirm the miracle and send its findings to the Vatican, where another committee meets to review the data and pass its recommendation on to the Pope. If this committee recommends that the person be called “Blessed” and the Pope agrees, a ceremony takes place and the candidate is now called “Blessed.”
The Declaration of Sainthood—Canonization
Before he can be proclaimed “Saint”—really in Heaven with God—a second miracle must occur due to the candidate’s intercession and must be authenticated. The miracle must have occurred after he was declared “Blessed.” The same process for verifying the miracle is followed. If the candidate’s reputation for holiness is still intact and even growing, the Pope may decide that canonization can take place. The ceremony at the Vatican does not make this man a saint; it confirms that he is already a saint and enjoys the presence of God. He has lived a life of virtues that are worthy of imitation by the faithful. The rite of canonization proclaims infallibly, without the possibility of error, that he has attained that goal for which all of us were born—union with God.
Image credit: CPP/CIRIC