Question 91:

Why and how are people made saints?



The term ‘saint’

‘Making someone a saint’ is popular Catholic parlance. More exact and correct is the term ‘to canonize’, meaning that the Church declares (a deceased person) an officially recognized saint. The Church gives her solemn verdict about the successful lives of servants of God, who have followed the example of Christ and have given excellent testimony for the Kingdom of Heaven either through the non-violent shedding of their own blood (martyrs) or heroic virtue (confessors). In as far as the Church officially confirms by the canonization that the canonized person has heroically exercised virtues and has lived faithfully to the glory of God, it also recognizes the power of the Spirit of holiness, transforming a believer into a saint worthy of canonization. Canonized saints strengthen the hope of the faithful by reliably giving them saintly examples and advocates. This official certainty justifies the public veneration of the saints.


After the formal beatification, for example for a local church, for a religious order or for a specific country, canonization includes the saint in the list of saints, into the canon of saints, which is why the process is also called canonization. In addition to the appropriate reverence on the part of the faithful, it is necessary that the beatified has performed a miracle some time after the beatification which has to be certified in a separate process. There is no legal right to canonization following the successful conclusion of the process. It is characteristic of the processes for beatification and canonization that they only represent a conclusion which is aimed at a possible verdict from the Pope, which he reaches having freely taken the result of the process into account, i.e. he can confirm or reject the conclusion. Both does occur.

Theological Purpose

Through canonization, the Church does not primarily recognize the striving for personal perfection in the succession of Christ, although it does include this meaning; in the context of a theology which is not just aiming at individual salvation, canonization is more than achieving a heroic level of virtue as an incentive for others to do likewise; canonization is the self-recognition of the Church, as the Second Vatican Council explains, when it deals with the blending point of the eschatological character of the pilgrim Church and its unity with the heavenly Church (Lumen Gentium 48-51). Saints are not merely virtuous, but rather they constitute the realization of Christ’s promise of salvation to His Church. When the Church guarantees their status, it confesses itself as indestructibly holy. And it confesses its own history. Sanctity is therefore not the realization of the abstract ideal of a supernatural commandment which always has to follow the same pattern. Rather, sanctity is always expressed in new, concrete, and therefore, historically unique forms which has to conform to an established pattern. The enormous variety of saints, their respective temperaments and life stories confirm this (see W. Schulz, art. Heiligsprechung, in: Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, Bd. 4 (Freiburg: Herder, 1995).


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