How Catholic Saints are Chosen

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“In all times, God chooses from these many who, following more closely the example of Christ, give outstanding testimony to the Kingdom of heaven by shedding their blood or by the heroic practice of virtues” (Note 1).  This quote comes from the Apostolic Constitution, Divinus Perfectionis Magister, proclaimed in 1983 by Pope John Paul II to establish Church law on the process of naming someone a saint (known as canonization).  Divinus Perfectionis Magister is codified by the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints in New Laws for the Causes of Saints also promulgated in 1983.  This short article will summarize from these two documents those who are responsible and the steps each must take during this process. 

Key Participants.  There are a number of primary participants (individual or organization) responsible for a part of the process of canonization.  These include:  petitioner, postulator, bishop(s), witnesses, physicians (for the consideration of miracles), members of the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints (there are numerous participants embedded within this organization), and the pope.  Participants must take an oath and “are bound to maintain secrecy” throughout the process (Note 2).

Process.  The process is relatively straight forward but at the same time it is very time consuming.  In fact, at least five years must pass before the process can even begin, before someone is named a Servant of God.  (On the other hand, for causes proposed after 30 years of death, the bishop must first consider the circumstances in terms of the possibility of fraud or deceit.)  Thereafter, the time required to establish sainthood is open ended.

The process begins when a petitioner nominates someone to sainthood through a postulator.  The postulator can be thought of as the appointed representative of the cause of the Servant of God and continues in this position throughout the process.  The local bishop approves the beginning of the process as well as agrees with and appoints the postulator in writing.

The postulator has a very important duty to ensure the Servant of God is truly worthy of sainthood in terms of his or her life as well as the “importance of the cause for the Church” (Note 3).  In a way, the postulator is a combination of a private investigator and defense lawyer.

After an initial investigation, the postulator delivers a report to the appropriate bishop.  At the beginning of a cause, this first report establishes the sanctity of the individual and goes to the bishop in the place where the Servant of God died; in the event of miracles, the bishop where the miracle occurred is responsible for the investigation of the miracle.

The postulator includes extensive information in the report – these include a complete biography, all of the Servant’s writings, opinions of those in favor of and opposed to canonization, and other pertinent information.

The bishop, in turn, offers the information to other bishops and asks for members of his diocese as well as other dioceses to provide additional information, both good and bad.  If new information is discovered and if the new information includes obstacles to sainthood, then the bishop passes the obstacle to the postulator who is charged with eliminating it, if possible.

Once the new information is considered, adjudicated if necessary, and included in the case file, the cause can proceed to the next level.  Herein, the bishop asks two theological censors to review the “published writings of the Servant of God. These censors are to report whether anything is found in these same writings, contrary to faith and good morals” (Note 4).  If the censors find no inconsistencies, the bishop asks them to consider in like manner all other writings of the Servant of God pertinent to his or her cause.

The bishop sends the entire case file including all writings to the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints to see if they have knowledge of obstacles.  He also appoints an expert to prepare for and be present at interviews.  Next, either the bishop or his appointee(s) oversee the interviews.  Witnesses take an oath and “must indicate the source of their knowledge of the things they assert” (Note 5).  Witnesses include family and friends and, in the situation wherein miraculous healing has occurred, the physician.  Should a physician refuse to testify as to the miraculous nature of the healing, he or she should write a report “about the disease and its progress, which is to be inserted into the acts, or at least their opinion is to be heard by a third party, who is then to be examined” (Note 6).  All information and data found through interviews is provided to the bishop in a report.

The final part of the investigation requires the bishop or his representative to go to the place of death and tomb of the Servant of God to find any other evidence about the cause of sainthood.  This, too, is included in the case file.

The entire case file is then sent to the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints.  The Sacred Congregation analyzes all data and information in great depth and then, assuming the investigation is positive, recommends sainthood for the Servant of God to the Pontiff who then approves or rejects the recommendation (Note 7).

To be beatified, the investigators must validate one miracle; assuming all other things positively point to sainthood, the Pontiff can declare the individual as Blessed.  If another miracle occurs and is also validated, then the Pontiff can declare the individual a saint. 

All in all, the saints are role models of virtue, of a willingness to suffer and die in the name of God (martyrs), and certainly of those who do the will of God while following the precepts and ways of Jesus Christ.  Saints show us how to live a good life and together with everyone in the entire communion of saints, including ourselves, give us examples of how to praise, thank, and worship God.

Note 1. Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution, Divinus Perfectionis Magister,, (Vatican, 1983), accessed April 11, 2011.

Note 2. Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints, New Laws for the Causes of Saints, (Vatican, 1983),, accessed April 11, 2011.

Note 3.  Ibid.

Note 4.  Ibid.

Note 5.  Ibid.

Note 6.  Ibid.

Note 7. Divinus Perfectionis Magister.

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