Canonization is the process of posthumously declaring someone to be a saint, as exercised by a canonical Christian authority. The process resembles a legal trial, wherein the supporters of the cause must demonstrate the sanctity of their proposed candidate. The confirmation of an individual's sainthood is both theologically and practically significant, as it is, in essence, a public declaration that they remain effective intercessors on behalf of the living. At the same time, it affirms the propriety of venerating them, under the theological assumption that all such prayers will be redirected to God.
The practice of Canonization is currently practiced by the Roman Catholic Church (including the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches), by the Eastern Orthodox Church, and by the Oriental Orthodox Churches. The Church of England does not rule out canonization, but it has only ever canonized one man: Charles I of England.
The Roman Catholic Church did not always have a process of canonization. Initially, the term "saint" was applied informally (as the plural form was often used in Scripture simply for designating the faithful), such that many early saints (even those who were the subjects of popular cults) were not formally canonized. The process proper began in the tenth century C.E., when the Roman Pontiff demanded that all saints throughout his jurisdiction be added to an official list ("canon"), which was to be kept in Rome. The first saint to be added to this official list was Saint Ulrich of Augsburg, who was canonized in 993. Over time, this process has become more rigorous, requiring detailed study of the lives, writings, and posthumous miracles of prospective candidates. Subjects who pass an initial stage of scrutiny are first beatified and, only later (and with further analysis) become formally canonized as saints.
Due to its theological and practical significance, canonization is taken very seriously. Most Catholic theologians hold canonization to be an infallible act of the Church. For example, Thomas Aquinas (arguably the most influential theologian of the second millennium of Christianity) says, "Since the honor we pay the saints is in a certain sense a profession of faith, i.e., a belief in the glory of the Saints [quâ sanctorum gloriam credimus] we must piously believe that in this matter also the judgment of the Church is not liable to error."
The first instances of beatification and canonization were directed toward martyrs around whom informal cults had developed. While these cults began as "grass-roots" phenomena, they were often patronized by local clerical officials, as “the majority of well-documented devotions were located at the level of local sainthood, that is where the religious conceptions of the faithful and the requirements of the clergy intersected” (Vauchez, 157). However, even at this level, the bishops saw it necessary to evaluate and legitimize these cults. In doing so, the bishop would inquire into the circumstances of the purported martyr's death and, finding it ideologically sound, would send the martyr's name and an account of their passing to neighboring churches, so that, in event of approval by their respective bishops, the cultus of the martyr might also extend to their churches (Beccari). In the following centuries, similar veneration came to be paid to "confessors" (those who died peacefully after a life of heroic virtue) with a correspondingly non-standardized system of patronage by the local ecclesiastical authorities (see Weinstein and Bell, 1982; Brown, 1981; Wilson, 1983).
From approximately 500 to 900 C.E., large regional variations existed in these informal "canonization" policies. In some jurisdictions, bishops were permitted to grant martyrs and confessors public ecclesiastical honor, whereas in other areas only primates and patriarchs were allowed this responsibility (Beccari). However, in all cases, this recognition was highly provisional, in that the attendant honors were only authorized for the local territory over which the grantors held jurisdiction (Beccari). Though the Bishop of Rome (Pope) could conceivably have vetoed the development of any of these movements, as he alone could permit or command the Universal (Roman Catholic) Church, this rarely happened—likely because these cults were important to the Church's continuing conversion project. However, abuses began to creep into this informal system, due to popular fervor and "the carelessness of some bishops in inquiring into the lives of those whom they permitted to be honored as saints" (Beccari). As Michael Goodich describes, "the power of a saint rested upon his conformity to a tradition of sainthood accepted by the community he served. If that group, for the moment, stood outside the papal sphere, he might still have been regarded as holy, despite the displeasure of the authorities” (Goodich, 300).
As a result, by the close of the eleventh century the popes found it necessary to restrict Episcopal authority and decreed that the virtues and miracles of persons proposed for public veneration should be examined in councils (Beccari). Even after these decrees, public (and local ecclesiastical) compliance was fitful at best, as this bureaucratic acceptance was still seen as an optional component of these cults. Resultantly, the “the approval of the Holy See was sought only to confer extra luster on certain cults" rather than being the de facto source of legitimation (Vauchez 22-23). Responding to this, Pope Alexander III (r. 1159-1181 C.E.) denied the viability of popular veneration, declaring: "For the future you will not presume to pay him [unauthorized "saints"] reverence, as, even though miracles were worked through him, it would not allow you to revere him as a saint unless with the authority of the Roman Church" (quoted in Kleinburg, 189). Thus, the Pope "for the first time reserved the right of beatification" (Beccari).
From this point onward, the complex and involved papal rite of canonization was born. Though social and economic concerns figured into the process (see Goodich, 1975 and Theilmann, 1990 for more details on this aspect), the primary issue for the Holy See was theological legitimacy. This led to the development of an involved process of inquiry (described below) that “resembled a lawsuit between the Pope and the petitioners, in which… the papal party acted as judge as well as defendant” (Toynebee 157). The aim was to determine the propriety of these individual's lives (and deaths) as objects of popular veneration and to make sure that their folk hagiographies were in keeping with the Church's theological aims.
Some bishops did not obey this edict (at least as regards to beatification), as it contradicted their previously established rights and spheres of authority, so "Pope Urban VIII published, in 1634, a Bull which put an end to all discussion by reserving to the Holy See exclusively not only its immemorial right of canonization, but also that of beatification" (Beccari).
The process of beatification and canonization has undergone various changes in the history of the Catholic Church. Below, we will outline the process as it was in 1914, which is representative of its maximum level of complexity and sophistication (these regulations have been somewhat relaxed since Pope John Paul II made reforms to canon law in 1983 (discussed below)). It should be noted that the level of scrutiny suggested below has remained consistent since at least the time of Pope Urban VIII.
For a candidate to be eventually considered for canonization, they must first pass the extensive process of analysis and scrutiny necessary for beatification. This process includes:
The 1983 reform of the Catholic Church's canon law has streamlined the procedure considerably, especially when compared to the extensive process described above. The new process was established by Pope John Paul II, in his apostolic constitution of January 25, 1983, Divinus Perfectionis Magister, and by Pietro Cardinal Palazzini, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, in the New Laws for the Causes of Saints, published on February 7, 1983.
The process begins at the diocesan level, with the bishop giving permission to open an investigation of the virtues of the person who is suspected of having been a saint. This investigation may not open until permission is given by the Vatican, and not sooner than five years after the death of the person being investigated. However, the pope has the authority to waive this waiting period, as was done for Mother Teresa by Pope John Paul II, as well as for John Paul II himself by his immediate successor, Benedict XVI. When sufficient information has been gathered, the subject of the investigation is called Servant of God, and the process is transferred to the Roman Curia—the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints—where it is assigned a postulator, whose task is to gather all information about the life of the Servant of God. When enough information has been gathered, the congregation will recommend to the pope that he make a proclamation of the Servant of God's heroic virtue, which entitles him or her to receive the title Venerable. A Venerable has as of yet no feast day, but prayer cards may be printed to encourage the faithful to pray for a miracle wrought by his or her intercession.
The next step depends on whether the Venerable is a martyr. For a martyr, the pope has only to make a declaration of martyrdom, which then allows beatification, yielding the title Blessed and a feast day in the Blessed's home diocese and perhaps some other local calendars. If the Venerable was not a martyr, it must be proven that a miracle has taken place by his or her intercession. Today, these miracles are almost always miraculous cures, as these are the easiest to establish based on the Catholic Church's requirements for a "miracle" (for example, if the patient was sick, there was no known cure for the ailment, prayers were directed to the Venerable, the patient was cured, and doctors cannot explain it).
To pass from Blessed to Saint, one (more) miracle is necessary.
Once formally sanctified, a saint's feast day is considered universal and may be celebrated anywhere within the Catholic Church, although it may or may not appear on the general calendar.
In the case of persons have been called saints from "time immemorial" (in practice, since before 1500 or so), the Church may carry out a "confirmation of cultus," which is much simpler. For example, Saint Hermann Joseph had his veneration confirmed by Pope John Paul II.
In Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy, canonization continues to be practiced much as it was during the first millennium of Christianity: people are recognized as saints primarily because they are seen to have preserved the image of God in themselves, and in that sense, are living icons. This recognition happens through the simple process of adding a person's name to the list or canon of saints who are honored throughout the year, though there is no single comprehensive list of all Orthodox saints, and no bureaucratic process to go through before adding a saint to the canon.
However, for a cult to develop past the local level, the propriety of venerating a particular figure is determined by a synod of bishops corresponding to the relevant geographical area. An interesting difference, likely stemming from the increased importance of saints in the Orthodox liturgy, is that "local saints may be venerated if the bishop does not object" (Beinert, 816 [italics added]), thus allowing the public greater autonomy in the formation of popular cults.
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