The fresco (c. 1375-76) by Giusto de Menabuoi in the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Venice. wjarek/AdobeStock

Surrounded by the Saints

Exploring the attributes of holiness and the Church’s canonization process

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It can be easy, or perhaps convenient, to forget that all the baptized are called to be saints, a central Christian belief articulated anew by the Second Vatican Council as the “universal call to holiness.” The late Cardinal Francis E. George, OMI, once wrote, “People who are holy, whether or not publicly recognized by the Church as saints, keep the world from turning into hell.” This line, it seems, gets at the heart of what the Communion of Saints is all about — because it is the saints that truly embrace the vocation of love for which God created us.

St. Catherine of Siena
Statue of St. Catherine of Siena. AdobeStock

When we think about the varied and many troubles of our time, so much of our public discourse and private prayer is spent hoping and looking for solutions. But as we typically end up looking for the next big program or a five-year plan, do we miss the forest for the trees? Do we miss the basic call to holiness that God offers to each of us, which is a call to change the world for the good? Could it be that if we truly embraced our call to holiness, as St. Catherine of Siena said, and lived as God made us, we would “set the world on fire”?

This thought came to me last year amid racial reckoning that roiled across America. How can we as Christians contribute to the healing of racism in our land? How can we overcome our sins? Thus was born “Black Catholics on the Road to Sainthood” (OSV, $9.95), a collection of biographies and reflections on the lives of these four holy women and two holy men.

The stories of the six African American candidates for canonization illustrate how they persevered in the face of racism inside and outside the Church, and their experiences and responses model the way forward. Rather than allowing sin to destroy them, their hearts overflowed with love in the face of evil.

All six of these men and women manifest what Pope Benedict XVI described about the saints: “Those who change the world for the better are holy, they transform it permanently, instilling in it the energies that only love inspired by the Gospel can elicit. The saints are humanity’s great benefactors!” (General Audience, Sept. 15, 2010).

It is no wonder, then, why the Christian tradition has made it so that the saints surround us in the life of the Church. Their feasts fill the liturgical life of the Church, and their names are bestowed upon our church buildings. Statues and stained-glass windows depicting them often are displayed throughout our churches, helping direct and focus our prayer and meditation, and allowing us to venerate the goodness of God that radiates through them. These holy men and women are true models to follow on the way of discipleship, sources of inspiration in daily living, and examples of the struggles and cost that comes with following Christ.

Furthermore, we turn to the saints for heavenly help all the time, especially with rosaries and devotions. We erect shrines to house their relics and give us a place to make a pilgrimage as we ask for their aid in times of need. And we call on the saints in litanies in private prayer or at some of the most significant moments in the Christian life, such as baptisms or ordinations. The Communion of Saints is real, alive and essential to our practice of the Faith.

As we profess in the creed that we believe in the Communion of Saints, we must acknowledge that saints are not produced in a vacuum. The informal saints that Cardinal George referenced surround us in daily living. We should be on the lookout for them. We should be them.

Clergy have the important task of providing to the faithful many of the gifts Christ gives to his Church — a ministry oriented to building up the Body of Christ. The laity is called to sanctify the world in Christ’s name. Working together, the lay faithful and the clergy can strengthen and support each other in this fundamental baptismal call to holiness to advance and inherit the kingdom of God.

Called to Heroic Virtue

The saints depend on God and allow God’s goodness to shine through them. They are men and women of virtue, to a heroic degree. And their virtues are classified as human or theological.

To excel in human virtues, a Christian must be thoroughly committed. Our actions and our will are brought into harmony with faith and reason. These virtues enable us to find the joy for which God made us through self-control.

A life of virtue is disposed toward seeking the good, the true and the beautiful. All human behavior is properly aimed at Christ’s admonition to be perfect, “just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that the human virtues build upon the theological virtues: “They inform all the moral virtues and give life to them” (No. 1841). Faith, hope and charity “dispose Christians to live in a relationship with the Holy Trinity. They have the One and Triune God for their origin, motive, and object” (No. 1841).



Miracles are central to Christ’s ministry and that of the apostles. Many saints have been known as wonderworkers, by whose work miracles have occurred even while they were alive. The presence of miracles has been associated with declaring saints even from the earliest days of ecclesial life. Although supernatural phenomena might have been part of the holy person’s own life, only the miracles that occur after the person’s death will be considered as evidence of his or her closeness to God as a heavenly intercessor.

The Church investigates thoroughly any alleged miracles attributed to the intercession of a candidate for canonization. And the Church is equally committed to their authentication. Reported miracles typically are inexplicable medical healings, which are subsequently subjected to thorough investigations by medical and theological experts.

After examination, ratification and endorsement by both local and Roman commissions, reported miracles are submitted to the pope for his ultimate approval. Current ecclesiastical legislation requires one miracle for beatification — unless the candidate was a martyr, in which case he or she is exempt — and a second miracle necessary for canonization.


According to Christian tradition, human virtue is pivoted upon four main virtues: prudence, temperance, justice and fortitude. St. Ambrose first referred to these as “cardinal” virtues in the fourth century, stemming from the Latin word cardo, which means “hinge.” Also appearing in Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament Book of Wisdom, these four virtues show up in ancient philosophy as the guide for those seeking a moral life (cf. 8:7). These human virtues are learned through our own education and by persevering in their practice with a dependence on God’s grace.

The evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience are also considered in the investigation of a holy person’s life. Although usually just associated with vows taken by consecrated persons, “Christ proposes the evangelical counsels, in their great variety, to every disciple” (Catechism, No. 915). The virtuous practice of the evangelical counsels should be appropriated by all Christians who seek holiness.

The Canonization Process

The Church has long taken seriously the solemn duty to declare as saints various holy men and women of every generation. Because of the centrality of the Communion of Saints, and the power of their witness and intercession, the Church sets out to canonize individuals only in response to thorough research and documentation. Ultimately, it is by God’s action that a given individual is in heaven. The Church, by its canonization process, is establishing that fact.

Since ancient times, the Church has commemorated some of its members renowned for heroic faith, hope and charity, and has acknowledged that the divine life was abundant in theirs. Topping the list of Christians first heralded as saints are the martyrs, the early Christian witnesses who were killed in hatred of the Faith. After the legalization of Christianity, the Church began recognizing more abundantly those who modeled heroic Christian living but did not die as martyrs.

Before there was a process for canonization, saints were declared by popular acclaim. But as a process was developed and codified, the competency for declaring saints eventually came to rest solely with the See of Rome. In 1983, Pope St. John Paul II overhauled the canonization process, which guides the Church today.

canonization graph

The canonization process, with its prescribed process and procedures, is juridical in many ways. Only after a long road of inquiry and research will come the pope’s solemn declaration, during the canonization rite, which states the person is in heaven.

Before a canonization cause is introduced, there must first be a popular devotion to the holy person. Do others turn to this person for inspiration? Does this person’s intercession help secure divine favor in specific circumstances? Is there evidence to rely upon and witnesses who can testify? These must be answered in the affirmative for a cause to proceed.

Then comes the hard work. First, an association of the faithful or a guild must be established to oversee advancing a cause. This group fosters devotion and prayer to the person in question and oversees advancing his or her reputation with written materials. A group overseeing a cause also needs to secure the necessary financial support that is needed to accomplish this work.

An established and consistent popular devotion to the individual proposed for canonization is the mark of success for any cause of canonization. The means are typically twofold: that the individual’s holy life is a source of inspiration to the faithful, and that he or she is petitioned through prayer for intercession in various needs and occasions.

Current ecclesiastical law requires the person to be deceased five years before opening a cause, although the pope can waive the rule as has happened in a few recent instances. A thorough examination of the holy person’s life is conducted, often in tandem with fostering devotion to him or her. A postulator oversees the advancement of the cause and is assisted by various experts.

The cause proceeds according to one of three paths: the person is proven to be a martyr; the person is proven to have lived a life of heroic virtue; or the person is proven to have prematurely offered up his or her life in an act of supreme charity. Two proven miracles are needed for non-martyrs to be canonized, while only one miracle is needed for a martyr’s canonization because he or she is beatified once martyrdom is established.

The investigation commences at a local level — usually overseen by a diocese or religious community. Evidence is accumulated to prove the individual existed, and his or her life and work are carefully scrutinized by historical and theological commissions. Somewhere during the early stages of the cause’s advancement, the title “Servant of God” is bestowed upon the individual, indicating that it has become clear that sizable numbers of the faithful believe he or she is a saint. It is also customary at this stage that the individual’s grave is examined, in which the body is typically exhumed and relics are preserved.

When the local investigation into the person’s life and work is completed, the materials are forwarded to the Holy See’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Working with the materials submitted, the same scrutiny is then given to the person’s life at the Roman level. Officials at the congregation thoroughly examine all the documentation submitted and compile it into what’s called a positio — something like a lengthy biography with accompanying testimony and evidence.

At the congregation, members decide to advance the cause after examination of the positio, which is presented to the pope after a positive vote. When the pope agrees and supports the work in a positio, the individual is granted the title “Venerable,” which is to say he or she is worthy of veneration for his or her holiness and intercessory privilege.

The canonization process looks very similar when an individual’s martyrdom is investigated. When a candidate is declared venerable or a martyr, a giant hurdle is cleared on the path to declaring him or her a saint.

There is also a fourth, rarely used option called equipollent or equivalent canonization, whereby an individual is named a saint by the pope after a lengthy period in which it has been established that someone has been long and consistently renowned for holiness and intercession. This process demands a lengthy investigation, too, which justifies its use. In the rarest of occasions, portions of the canonization process — or the entirety of it — can be dispensed by the pope at any time.

Beatification and Canonization

When a person is beatified, the penultimate stage of the canonization process, the Church grants the title “Blessed” to the candidate and proclaims it worthy of belief that he or she is in heaven. Under current legislation, if the person is declared a martyr, he or she is beatified without a proven miracle. For other candidates, however, a miracle attributed to the individual’s intercession must be proven.

By means of beatification, veneration of the candidate is permitted on a local level, taking place, for example, in a diocese, or even nationally, where the candidate lived, or in a religious community or a relevant apostolate with which he or she was affiliated. Churches may be dedicated in their honor in the specific locations associated with their life or work, and they are assigned a liturgical memorial to be celebrated in places associated with the blessed’s life. In recent years, the beatifications also have been locally celebrated, usually in a place where the beatified person lived or died. At the least, a proven miracle is needed for all individuals who are canonized, two in the case of non-martyrs. But, at times, the pope has dispensed of the need for a final miracle for candidates for canonization.

Canonization occurs with a solemn declaration that the individual is in heaven and enjoys the beatific vision. It binds the faithful to the belief that — using a definitive, infallible act of the magisterium — the candidate is a “Saint.”

The rite of canonization is incorporated in a Eucharistic liturgy celebrated by the pope, most typically at the Vatican. It enables the candidate’s cult to be spread universally, inscribing their name in the canon, or official list, of the Church’s saints. While inclusion in the General Roman Calendar of their memorial may or may not happen, canonized saints are venerated publicly and have churches dedicated to their memory anywhere in the world.

Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV’s Simply Catholic, editor of “Black Catholics on the Road to Sainthood,” and author of a forthcoming biography of Cardinal Francis E. George, OMI


Black Catholics on the Road to Canonization

Black Catholics bookThe National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus of the United States began observing November as national Black Catholic History Month more than 30 years ago. This monthlong celebration is an opportunity to focus on the numerous contributions Black Catholics have made to the Church in America. Many Black Catholic figures have left an indelible mark, particularly the six figures of African American descent who are on the path to canonization.

Black Catholics on the Road to Sainthood” (OSV $9.95) is the first book to offer biographies and reflections on each of the six men and women currently under formal consideration for canonization in the Catholic Church: Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Venerable Henriette Delille, Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, Servant of God Mother Mary Lange, Servant of God Julia Greeley and Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman.

As the Church continues to pray for the advancement of these causes for canonization, all Catholics — no matter their race — can learn a great deal from these holy men and women. The stories of their faith and virtue give us a model for how to respond to our own call to holiness and how to offer healing, reconciliation and peace to our wounded world.

The following prayer for the causes of these holy six men and women, and their intercession in our lives, is reprinted from the conclusion of the book:

“Lord God, you are praised, adored, and loved through the lives and example of your servants. May it please you to work wonders by the intercession of these servants through whom your glory shines. In them, we see humanity’s true greatness, a sign of your favor and blessing. Through them, we are drawn more deeply into the mystery of your Son’s saving love.

“Even as we pray that the Church will one day designate them as canonized saints, may their witness bring transformation to our lives.

“Like Mother Mary Lange’s, may our faith shine brightly amid hardship so that we will trust always in your providence. Like Julia Greeley’s, may our hope remain intact despite the darkness and pain in our lives. Like Pierre Toussaint’s, may our hearts be aflame with charity for all your children. Like Father Augustus Tolton, may we be instruments of unity and reconciliation, not embittered by our sufferings. Like Mother Henriette Delille, may we persevere in our calling, no matter the obstacles, so that we may serve all in your name. Like Sister Thea Bowman, may we sing your wonders tirelessly, to greatest and least alike.

“And above all else, Lord, help us to follow your Son each day. Through him, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, may we come to worship you with all the angels and saints forever and ever. Amen.” (© Michael R. Heinlein, 2020)


Key Terms

BEATIFICATION the second stage in the process of proclaiming a person a saint; occurs after a diocese or eparchy and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints has conducted a rigorous investigation into the person’s life and writings to determine whether he or she demonstrates a heroic level of virtue, offered their life or suffered martyrdom. A miracle attributed to the person’s intercession must be proved.

BLESSED title bestowed on a person who has been beatified and accorded limited liturgical veneration.

CANONIZATION the formal process by which the Church declares a person to be a saint and worthy of universal veneration.

CONGREGATION FOR THE CAUSES OF SAINTS a department of the Roman Curia, established originally as the Congregation of Rites by Pope Sixtus V in 1588. Reorganized and renamed in 1969 by Pope Paul VI and again in 1983 by Pope John Paul II. Some of the responsibilities of the congregation include making recommendations to the pope on beatifications and canonizations, and the authentication and preservation of sacred relics.

MIRACLE something that has occurred by the grace of God through the intercession of a Venerable or Blessed which is scientifically inexplicable.

PETITIONER party initiating an action in canon law. In the case of a sainthood cause, the petitioner is one who asks the diocesan bishop to begin the investigation which could ultimately lead to canonization. (A bishop may also begin a cause on his own initiative, in which case he is the petitioner.)

POSITIO a comprehensive summary of all documentation; in this context, there are two: the one summarizing the investigation of a candidate’s life and heroic virtues or offering of life, or martyrdom and a second for any alleged miracles. The positio is prepared during the Roman phase by the postulator with the assistance of someone from the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

POSTULATOR person appointed to guide and oversee the cause. One oversees the cause at the diocesan or eparchial level (Phase I); the Roman postulator oversees all aspects of Phases II and III.

PREFECT the head of any of the Roman curial congregations, usually a cardinal.

RELATOR person appointed by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to assemble the historic documentation of the candidate for canonization.

SAINT the title given to someone who has been formally canonized by the Church as sharing eternal life with God, and therefore offered for public veneration and imitation.

SERVANT OF GOD the title given to a candidate for sainthood whose cause is still under investigation, prior to being declared Venerable.

VENERABLE the title given to a candidate for sainthood whose cause has not yet reached the beatification stage but whose heroic virtue has been declared by the pope.

— From the USCCB Public Affairs Office


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