How to become a saint
What does it take to be declared a person of exceptional holiness? Historian Emma J Wells explains how to enter the holy A-List…
Cardinal John Newman’s canonisation in 2019 was no small deal for us Brits: he is Britain’s first saint in more than 30 years (and the first to be canonised who has lived since the 17th century). The last were John Ogilvie, a Scottish Jesuit priest hanged for treasonable activities (namely declining the king’s authority) in 1615, and the famed Forty Martyrs (Catholics executed under Reformation laws), canonised in the 1970s.
It was Newman’s journey from ordained Anglican priest to leader of the Oxford Movement before a conversion to Catholicism in 1845 that secured him the supreme title of saint: a person of exceptional holiness.
Gaining this special status as one who demonstrates a life of almost perfect virtue is no easy feat. But, if you think sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church might be for you, here are some tips on how to enter the holy A-List…
Don’t bother befriending the pope
To start, don’t even think about reeling off a quick email to the pope. He doesn’t have the supreme jurisdiction to promote you to this exclusive club. That’s the canny job of the Vatican group exclusively created to sanction the official canonisation process to authorise people for sainthood: The Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
Don’t expect sainthood in your lifetime
Some more bad news: wannabe-saints have to shuffle off their mortal coils to be in the running. As the entire point is consideration as a “heavenly being”, being alive just won’t cut it.
And there’s no fast pass, either. The process is lengthy, often taking decades or even centuries to complete. Since 1588, the time between death and canonisation was just over 180 years. Poor Joan of Arc waited almost 500 years to be canonised following her harrowing martyrdom at the stake in 1431. And that’s nothing compared to the Venerable (Saint) Bede, who waited 1,164 years!
On average, the wheels don’t even start turning until at least five years post-mortem (to allow greater balance and objectivity in evaluating the case), unless you’re extra special like Mother Teresa (1910–1997) or Pope John Paul II (1920–2005), whose processes commenced just two years and a month after their deaths respectively! It’s also worth noting that the Vatican bases its decision on the actions and writings of the person, so you’ll need to keep busy before and beyond the grave. After all that, if you’re still resigned to achieving this supreme honour, read on.
Martyrs v Confessors
Saints generally fall into two categories based on their holy actions. The first group are the martyrs, who show willingness to be put to a violent death for refusing to renounce Christ. The deacon of Jerusalem, Saint Stephen, was the first Christian martyr stoned to death for blasphemy against the Jewish Temple.
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“Confessors", meanwhile, as the name suggests, confess the virtues of a Christian life (to a valorous degree). It is a somewhat easier route, as they don’t actually have to die for their faith, but are witnesses to it under difficult and often dangerous conditions. Saint Justin is a fine example: he saved many Christian lives by explaining faith through the writing of his Apologia. When facing martyrdom in c165, he exclaimed to the government official who asked him, “Do you think by dying you will receive a reward from God?” that, “I do not think; I know.”
As luck would have it, there are now another two ways to reach that divine goal. “Exceptional cases” are based on the confirmation of an already widespread venerable reputation, i.e. you need to be a baller of good deeds. This one tends to be used sparingly, like Mother Teresa, or Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), whose holiness were known worldwide. In 2017, Pope Francis created the final category: laying down one’s life for others. Stemming from the John 15.13 passage: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”, this effectively opened the gates to sainthood for us all (well, mostly). This overruled the previous subcategory – martyrs of love – superseding it and encompassing the laying down of one’s life for others as well as dying for love.
Live virtuously – and make sure everyone knows about it
So, you’ve decided which category might suit. Now what? Although the process is strictly rigorous today, prior to 1234, no formal process existed. Public opinion commonly informed who qualified as a saint, with their vitae (or lives) compiled by local cults, although bishops were the primary ecclesiastical authority in determining the historical veracity of martyrs and confessors.
Transferring a saint’s body to an altar or shrine also came to be interpreted as the act of canonisation. A great example is Archbishop Thomas Becket. Soon after his grisly murder at Canterbury Cathedral in December 1170, accounts of miraculous healing spread. Now viewed as a martyr, Becket became revered by Christians across Europe. This led to official canonisation not even three years later, and his translation from a tomb to shrine in 1220.
Over the past millennium, numerous popes have revised the canonisation process, largely to tighten procedures to ensure that only holy people were recognised. The 10th century saw Pope John XV assert that veneration must have the Catholic Church’s approval and, in 1234, Pope Gregory IX confirmed papal authority over the investigation and documentation of a candidate saint.
The first recorded saint to be papally canonised was Ulrich of Augsburg in 993, a mere 20 years after his death. In 1983, Pope John Paul II simplified the entire process and the number of saints increased dramatically. Prior to his 26-year reign, about 300 saints had been made, however John Paul personally canonised 482 saints and beatified 1,327 people. Perhaps he was attempting to secure his heavenly place in the process.
Today, once the five-year waiting period is up following the death of someone of “famed sanctity or martyrdom” (unless the pope waives this interim period), the local bishop is under obligation to collect evidence to merit the claim of holiness. He then sends the findings over and commences a dialogue with the Vatican. As soon as they are accepted for consideration, they are referred to as a “Servant of God”.
Many individuals – of every stature – have endured this process. In the early 18th century, the English Benedictines in Paris explored the cause of James II’s canonisation, following accounts of miraculous cures. Nothing came of it, unsurprisingly. This information-gathering process – or scrutiny – assesses whether the person lived a life of heroic virtue. It covers everything from writings and spoken works (to ensure “purity”); testimonials from eyewitnesses (of reputation and activities on earth); and even conformation that no one is already honouring the person as a saint before official declaration. The body of the candidate is then exhumed to ensure that they, well, actually existed. No doubt Saint Barbara was a catalyst in this thought-process. Once considered among the “Fourteen Holy Helpers”, the Catholic Church was forced to officially deny her existence in 1969; even the monks of St Augustine’s Abbey in Ramsgate suggested her legend was entirely spurious.
Once these background checks are satisfied, a panel of theologians and the Congregation for Cause of Saints then evaluate the “life” of the person. If deemed virtuous (which may take years), a “Decree of Heroic Virtue” may be issued thereby declaring them worthy of the title “Venerable”: a role model of Catholic virtues.
Work a miracle
The next step is beatification, the part of the process that allows the person to be venerated publicly, but only within a religious community, diocese or region. This element is a little trickier to muster: you must be responsible for a posthumous miracle – that is, unless you’re a martyr whose manner of death automatically wins you a heavenly spot alongside the ‘beatified’ clan, without even the hint of a supernatural deed (at this stage)!
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Otherwise, if you’re just a lowly “Venerable Servant of God”, being credited with a miracle is a non-negotiable. And don’t think a lifetime bribe to a friend will work: miracles must be authenticated by an entire expert panel. A scientific commission (known as Consulta Medica) attempt to confirm whether the miracle has no scientific or medical explanation; and a theological commission has to conclude that God performed the miracle through intercession. If agreed, the pope then officially announces the candidate beatified, or “Blessed”.
But it isn’t just miracles that count for this part of the ‘exam’. You could also be found incorrupt: free of decay when exhumed from the grave. In 698, Cuthbert's tomb on Lindisfarne was reopened and his body discovered intact, thus leading to his canonisation. Stranger still, when Saint Anthony was exhumed 32 years after his 1231 death, his entire body was decomposed except for his tongue. Taken as a miraculous sign of his speaking about the Word of God, Anthony’s canonisation was the fastest on record, taking less than 12 months.
There are also instances where the dried blood of a long-dead saint miraculously liquefies on their feast day. The most famous account is Saint Januarius (San Gennaro in Italian), the martyred patron saint of Naples. Now kept in a sealed glass ampoule in Naples Cathedral, his dried blood liquefies three specific days each year (though others have claimed up to 18.)
Finally, an “odour of sanctity” or mystical fragrance may signal the divine presence of a saint, contrasted against the customary putridity of a rotten corpse. At York Minster, a sweet-smelling oil exuded from Saint William’s tomb from 1223 onwards, sealed in ampullae and sold to pilgrims as miraculous souvenirs.
Unfortunately, your posthumous work is still not done. After beatification, another authenticated miracle must be verified; only then can the candidate be accepted a saint. Cardinal Newman’s sainthood was only secured at this final stage after a second miracle – the inexplicable healing in 2013 of a woman with life-threatening pregnancy complications after she prayed to Newman – was approved by Pope Francis this year. The first Newman-miracle came in 2010: the inexplicable healing of a man’s crippling spinal condition.
But we are not finished yet. The final verdict depends on nine theologians who give their vote. Soon after, the candidate is publicly recognised by the pope, usually in St Peter’s Square outside the Vatican. Or, on occasion, the pope beatifies and canonises in the country where the person lived and died, as was the case with the largest number of saints canonised at one time: the 103 Korean Martyrs at Seoul, South Korea in 1984.
Become a pope
Not convinced? There’s one final way of securing canonisation: become a pope. Roughly 30 per cent of all popes are saints.
Emma J Wells is an ecclesiastical and architectural historian specialising in the late medieval/early modern English parish church/cathedral and the cult of saints. She is also a broadcaster and the author of numerous books including Pilgrim Routes of the British Isles (Robert Hale, 2016).
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