From the May AD 1993
Our Lady of the Rosary
Question: What is beatification? I heard that the Pope was going to
beatify a lady in Poland.
Answer: Beatification is a first step before canonization, the declaration
that someone is a saint.
The Church teaches that those who have persevered in the life of virtue
enjoy the favor of God in heaven, and are able to intercede with Him for those
that implore their aid. In secular terms, this is something like having a friend
with important social connections. Such a friend can often arrange to smooth out
difficulties for you through the use of his influence.
The practice of prayer to the saints arose in the very early Church,
primarily through the veneration of martyrs. Those who shed their blood for
Christ had obviously persevered in the Faith. In many cases they could have
saved their own lives simply by renouncing their beliefs. Those who had known
them, and perhaps even seen them die, knew that they had a friend in heaven. It
was only natural for them to call upon these martyrs to help them with their own
trials and tribulations. They often felt the kinship of shared persecution.
As time went on and the common memory faded, it became necessary to establish
authoritative lists of those saints who had truly confessed their faith
through martyrdom. This was especially true as the veneration of the saints
became part of the public worship of the Church. It wouldn't do at all to have
the priests of an area offering Mass in honor of someone who died a less than
heroic (let alone honorable) death. Early on, it became a requirement that
before a person might be publicly venerated as a saint, the local bishop would
have to investigate and approve.
Later on, people who had undergone persecution, but who died of natural
causes, also began to be venerated. The were called "confessors," as
those that had "confessed" the Faith before their persecutors, but had
somehow escaped death. Such cases required much more careful investigation,
since there was no inherent guarantee that such "confessors" had
actually persevered in the Faith until death.
Later still, Christians began to revere those who had suffered no persecution
at all, but were renowned for their high degree of holiness. Such a thing was
even more difficult to prove than simple persecution, and required not only
evidence of final perseverance, but also confirmation by miracles worked
through the intercession of the (presumed) saint.
Until roughly the eleventh century, bishops or primates were deemed competent
to investigate and decree that a given person had indeed met the qualifications
for sainthood, and was therefore allowed a public cult. (The word cult here has
none of its sinister connotations.) Thus, saints were admitted to the canon of
public worship, but only in a given territory. St. Æthelbert, for example,
might be raised to the honors of the altar in England by the English primate at
Canterbury. But the same Æthelbert might be utterly unknown in Italy or
Obviously, one cannot be in heaven for the English, yet not in heaven for the
French. Just as doctrines must be true all over and defined for all Christians,
universality was needed in the process of canonization. This was all the more
true, as canonization came to mean a decree that we not only could, but should
honor an individual with our prayers. In the two hundred years or so around the
millennium, the demand for uniformity brought the development of the processes
we have come to know as beatification and canonization. In the Catholic Church
today, these decrees of sanctity are issued only by the Pope.
The actual procedure is fairly complex in practice, in order to ensure that
no mistake will be made, but its essentials are simple. The initial gathering of
information and testimony usually begins, as it always has, with the local
bishop. If a case can be made, the information is forwarded to Rome for the
appointment of the appropriate officials, who will argue its merits.
The process can go on for many years and even centuries. Keeping it going and
paying for its expenses requires that there be a number of people who remain
interested in the eventual canonization of the holy person. Members of
religious orders seem to have an edge, in that the order is likely to long
outlast its holy members, and provide impetus and resources to the procedure.
The process is moved along by a "Postulator,"
who may work with a number of assistants; and moderated by a
"Promoter of the Faith," (sometimes called the "Devil's
Advocate") who is charged with discovering any reasons why the person ought
not be named a saint.
When it is established that the person lived a holy life and died with final
perseverance, he is declared "Venerable," and is referred to by that
title. For example Mr. Æthelbert would then be known as the Venerable Æthelbert.
The writings of Venerable Æthelbertare reviewed to insure
orthodoxy. Testimony is sought to corroborate the fact that the Venerable
did live a holy and religious life. If testimony is forthcoming of miracles worked through the intercession of
the Venerable Æthelbert, and these miracles are judged to be genuine, the Pope
will declare Æthelbert "blessed." The Blessed Æthelbert may then
be venerated publicly, usually within a limited territory and without a Mass
and Office in his honor.
Additional miracles are required before the Blessed is declared to be Saint
Æthelbert. This declaration, known as canonization, is considered by most
theologians to be an exercise of the pope's infallible teaching authority. The
Holy Father is essentially calling on all Catholics to pay honor to this new
saint of God.
Reading Suggestion: The
Catholic Encyclopedia s.v. "Beatification and canonization"