Three million pilgrims descended on Rome to witness the 2005 funeral of Pope John Paul II. “Santo Subito!” (Sainthood Now!) cried the people. “Santo Subito!” read the banners.
So why is the process of declaring him a saint taking so long?
A little history may provide some background. In the early church, sainthood was limited to apostles and martyrs. Often they were declared saints shortly after their deaths. As years went by, as apostles died off and Rome ceased its persecution of Christians, the Church began to recognize people who by their heroic virtue and imitation of Christ had merited the status of sainthood and the veneration of Christians.
Originally, local churches and bishops could declare people saints. But in the late 12th century, to rectify abuses in the recognition of saints, the papacy assumed control of the process. Today, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, a department of the Roman Curia, is in charge of thoroughly investigating causes for sainthood and making recommendations to the pope on beatification and canonizations.
As a result, no one is declared a saint without a process that can take years, in some cases centuries, to unfold. To be sure, a few people like Pope John Paul II and Mother Theresa, both well-known throughout the world and widely acclaimed for their virtuous lives, have had parts of the process accelerated. But even their causes must undergo a thorough investigation..
Here, in a few words, is how it works. Step one begins as an examination of the candidate at the diocesan level. This can take place only after five years have passed since the candidate’s death, a period that allows the emotions of the moment to dissipate. In extraordinary cases, the Pope can dispense with this waiting period.
The bishop of the diocese, with the permission of Rome, forms a diocesan tribunal, which in turn interviews witnesses to attest to the candidate’s exercise of heroic Christian virtues, specifically the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude.
When the investigation is finished, the documentation is passed onto the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, where a person who oversees the cause presents it to a group of nine theologians to study. In Pope John Paul’s case, the documentation has already reached 2,000 pages. If a majority of the nine is in favor, the cause is passed on to the cardinals and bishops who are members of the Congregation. If they vote in favor, the results of the investigation are given to the Pope. If the Pope approves, the candidate is declared to be “Venerable,” meaning that the candidate is recognized for his or her heroic virtue.
But that’s just the beginning of the process. Step two is the process of Beatification, in which the candidate receives the title of “Blessed.” To attain this title, a candidate must have a miracle attributed to the candidate’s intercession after his or her death.
In Pope John Paul’s case, a French nun, Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre, was healed overnight of Parkinson’s disease, the same disease that afflicted the Pope. The sister was first diagnosed with the disease in 2001 at the age of 40. When the condition worsened in 2005, she and her fellow nuns began to pray to the late Pope to intervene with God to heal her. On June 2, she went to bed with severe Parkinson’s. When she awoke the next morning, she said she felt completely different and was soon able to return to her work at a maternity hospital in Paris.
After careful investigation into her case, the Vatican’s medical experts concluded that she did in fact have Parkinson’s and that there was no scientific explanation for the cure. Having satisfied the requirement of a first miracle through Pope John Paul’s intercession, Pope Benedict beatified his predecessor on May 1, 2011.
Step three is the process of canonization, which requires a second miracle, fully documented and attributable to the intervention of the candidate. That’s the process through which the cause for Pope John Paul’s canonization is proceeding. Should he be declared a saint, he will be entitled to public veneration throughout the Universal Church and be known as Saint John Paul.
Popes have canonized fewer than a thousand people since 1234. That may sound like Heaven is a very small place, but in fact, for every canonized saint, there are no doubt millions of ordinary people who have lived lives of heroic virtue and enjoy the same blessings as those who have been publicly recognized.
Blessed John Paul was a Pope and a person of great public achievement. But it’s important to remember that many canonized saints lived lives of relative obscurity in such callings as farm hands or teachers or missionaries or mariners.
It’s also important to make a distinction: the only people responsible for “making” saints are the saints themselves. The Church merely “recognizes” saints – recognizes them for making their lives examples of heroic virtue. The road to canonized sainthood is open to a few. But anyone who is willing to “live Christ,” in the words of St. Francis de Sales, and who lives a life of heroic virtue, can be assured that they will have a place in the Communion of Saints just as distinguished as the saints whose example was recognized by canonization.