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April 25, 2014

Sainthood in a nutshell: Martyrs, miracles and the stuff of making saints

VATICAN CITY — The Catholic Church makes saints to give the faithful role models. The process is cloaked in secrecy and open to criticism, given that it deals with science-defying miracles and notoriously politicized choices. In Sunday's dual papal canonization of John Paul II and John XXIII, it also involves rule-breaking, fast-track procedures.

But saints aren't going away anytime soon.

"Saintliness is part of the church's DNA," the Vatican's current chief saint-maker, Cardinal Angelo Amato, wrote in his 2012 tome on canonization. "Through the centuries, saints have been the spiritual doorway through which humanity is directed toward God."


The Vatican's detailed process for making a saint usually starts in the diocese where the candidate lived or died. A postulator — essentially the cheerleader spearheading the project — gathers testimony and documentation to build the case and presents the report to the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints. If the congregation's experts agree the candidate lived a virtuous life, the case is forwarded to the pope who signs a decree attesting to the candidate's "heroic virtues."

Over time, the postulator may come across information that someone was miraculously healed by praying to the candidate. If, upon further investigation, the cure cannot be medically explained, the case is presented to the congregation as the possible miracle needed for beatification. Panels of doctors, theologians, bishops and cardinals must certify that the cure was instantaneous, complete and lasting — and was due to the intercession of the sainthood candidate. If convinced, the congregation sends the case to the pope who signs a decree saying the candidate can be beatified. A second miracle is needed for canonization.

Beatification allows for veneration of the candidate locally, say in a particular diocese or country. Canonization allows for veneration throughout the universal church.

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