27 November 2009

Recognizing a Saint: Part 1 of 5

27 NOVEMBER 2009. Over the course of the year the Church celebrates hundreds of saints and blesseds, and many hundreds more are celebrated by particular religious communities and local churches due to particular or local devotions. As the Acta Sanctorum Blog seeks to celebrate with the Church all of these saints and blesseds, it seems like now (as a new liturgical year is about to begin) may be an opportune time to examine how the Church comes to recognize a person as a saint.

To begin, this first installment in the series will look at the basics of the Church's recognition of saints and provide a short introductory history.

As discussed in an earlier post, a saint is a "'holy one' who leads a life in union with God through the grace of Christ and receives the reward of eternal life. The Church is called the communion of saints, of the holy ones." (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2d ed. (hereinafter CCC), glossary (emphasis added)) Thus, the declaration of a person as a saint is a statement of belief by the Church that the person is indeed in heaven, having received the reward of eternal life for having lived a holy life in union with God, through the grace of Christ. 

In other words, the Church's recognition of an individual as a saint is not what makes that person a saint. Instead, the Church is declaring its belief that the person is a saint and was a saint (even before the person's formal recognition by the Church).

There a number of steps that must be achieved before the Church will declare a person's sainthood: (1) first the person's life undergoes an examination during which the person is given the title "Servant of God;" (2) at some point, the body of the person is exhumed with permission and examined and declaration is made that no heretical cult or superstitious practice has grown up around the person or her or his tomb; (3) then, the person must declared "Venerable" and having heroic virtue; (4) then, the person may be beatified (the most difficult step in the process)--and earns the title "Blessed"--which is an affirmation that it is "worthy of belief" that the Blessed is, indeed, in heaven; and (5) finally, the person may be canonized--thereby earning the title "Saint"--which is the declaration of belief that the person is indeed in heaven, enjoying the beatific vision.

The process to achieve sainthood, which had been around in some from since at least the Thirteenth Century, was simplified further, following reforms by Pope Paul VI, by Pope John Paul II in his apostolic constitution Divinus Perfectionis Magister, issued on 25 January 1983, and the norms issued by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints on 7 February 1983.

The declaration of sainthood provides for universal veneration of the Saint throughout the Church. While not an express limitation, the veneration of a Blessed, or Beati, may be limited to only a particular diocese or a particular religious order.

Reportedly, there are more than 10,000 named saints and blesseds from history, counting both Catholic and Orthodox sources, but there is no definitive head count. The General Roman Calendar assigns feast days of saints to about half of the days of the year. However, that is only a small percentage of all the saints listed in the Roman Martyrology--the Church's official 776 page list of saints.

The second installment of this series will look more closely at what is involved in a person being named a Servant of God.

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