From popular acclaim to a papal decision Sainthood: The highly detailed process for identifying new saints normally takes decades, but in Mother Teresa's case, many expect it will not need to be too long.


In the week since Mother Teresa's death, Roman Catholics have begun discussing whether she should be declared a saint. Even normally cautious clerics have joined in: "I personally would canonize her tomorrow," says Cardinal John J. O'Connor of New York. "I think she is a saint in heaven."

But who determines saintliness?

The idea of sainthood is nearly as old as Christianity, beginning with the contemporaries of Jesus -- the Apostles and martyrs, the Christians who gave their lives for their faith during the LTC Roman persecutions. Early Christians believed martyrs were perfect Christians, and accounts of their martyrdom circulated among the faithful.

At first, there was no formal process for determining sainthood; it was bestowed by popular acclaim. The Bibliotheco Sanctorum, the most comprehensive listing of saints, runs to more than 18 volumes with more than 10,000 names.

In the early centuries of Christianity, a saint would be named and recognized by a single community and venerated in only that one place. Bishops later assumed that authority for themselves. One result is that the lists of early saints included many obscure figures, including some who were fictional. Many of these legendary saints were purged from the rolls in a 1969 reform.

"Canonizations in the Western Church were not gathered solely in the pope's hands until the Middle Ages," says Bruce Miller, coordinator of Religious Studies and Humanities libraries at the Catholic University in Washington. "There were huge numbers of saints where people knew very little about them."

In the 10th century, bishops began to submit names of saints to the pope for his approval, to give them greater prestige. In 1234, Pope Gregory IX decreed that a papal decision was the only legitimate process for establishing sainthood.

Meanwhile, definitions of sainthood had gradually expanded to include figures who had suffered for the faith, particularly hermits and ascetics; people of great virtue, especially those who served the poor; and intellectuals, such as St. Thomas Aquinas.

Well before the 20th century, the Roman Catholic Church established a fixed, highly detailed process for identifying new saints, involving an investigation of a candidate's life and writings, authentication of at least two posthumous miracles attributed to that figure and final approval by the pope.

It's a process that normally takes decades. Church law says the investigation cannot even begin until five years after a person's death, a sort of ecclesiastical cooling-off period.

St. Therese of Lisieux, the French Carmelite nun for whom Mother Teresa is named, has the quickest canonization on record. Known as "the Little Flower," she died in 1897 at age 24 and was declared a saint 28 years later by Pope Pius XI. Her autobiography, published posthumously, spoke of her "little way" of doing simple acts to honor God, and captured the imagination of Catholics.

In the case of Mother Teresa, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles has already called on the Vatican to canonize her by 2000, faxing a letter to Rome with the request. In Rome, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's authority on doctrine, has said: "I think her life, which was resplendent in front of the eyes of everyone, will not offer too many problems and, therefore, the process will not need to be too long."

The process begins in the diocese where the candidate for sainthood lived and worked. "The person's life and the person's virtues would be studied and investigated," says the Rev. Kevin Rhoades, rector of Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg. "There would be eyewitnesses to the life and work of the candidate, and they would certainly be interviewed. The person's writings would be investigated. Every aspect of the person's life would be researched."

The findings are sent on the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints. If that body accepts the case for investigation, the title "Venerable" is attached to the person's name.

Here, miracles enter the picture. For the second step in the process -- beatification -- proof of one posthumous miracle is required. For canonization, there must be proof of two miracles.

"It's kind of divine confirmation that the person is in heaven interceding for whoever was praying for the intercession of the candidate," Rhoades says. "It has to be something completely ++ unexplainable by human science or human causes."

The investigation of any supposed miracle is rigorous. "They'll want to know everything. A board of doctors will investigate this," Miller says. "They'll want to know what the condition was, they'll want to see the X-rays of the person before this supposed miracle took place."

In some cases -- martyrs, for example -- the requirement for miracles can be waived. "Martyrs always have the leg up," Miller says. "If you die for the faith, that's pretty good evidence of sanctity."

Pope John Paul II has left his mark by streamlining the canonization process. He has canonized 278 saints (including several groups of Christians who were martyred together), more than twice the number of any other 20th-century pope -- a record that has prompted some criticism: Italian Cardinal Silvio Oddi complained last year that the Vatican "has become a saint factory."

And John Paul has expanded the list of saints beyond Europeans, priests and nuns to include more lay people and Third World representatives. (In 1975, Pope Paul VI canonized the first American-born saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton.)

The Episcopal Church honors the saints, such as St. Peter and St. Paul, who were recognized by the church before the Protestant Reformation. And it recognizes saintly people by including their names in a Calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts with the approval of the church's General Convention. The Episcopal Church USA voted to recognized Florence Nightengale by its General Convention in July.

In the Eastern Orthodox churches, the process for declaring sainthood begins at the grass roots. Members of a local church will begin to honor the life and work of a holy person. "They'll begin to pray to him, asking for help from our Lord," says the Rev. Constantine Monios, dean of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Assumption in Baltimore. "Slowly that movement grows, and even sometimes before sainthood is granted, icons appear."

An Eastern Orthodoxy patriarch would later formally declare that person a saint.

What Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy share is the idea of venerating saints and keeping their images in paintings, statues and icons.

"Many people think that we're engaging in idol worship," Monios says. "I liken it to the pictures we keep in our homes. Just like we have pictures of our loved ones, we have icons of our spiritual loved ones."

Pub Date: 9/12/97

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