Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

From the May AD 1993
Our Lady of the Rosary
Parish Bulletin

    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 France.

    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"


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