Becoming part of the official register or canon of the church’s saints has been an evolving process. There used to be one sure way to get there: martyrdom—which, in centuries of persecution, was a serious possibility after baptism. After Christianity became an established religion of the Empire under Constantine in 325, martyrs were rare. “White” martyrdom—the sacrifice of one’s life to prayer and penance—led to the monastic movement. Gradually, a virtuous life became the popular standard for sanctity.
Today’s potential saints face a ladder of steps to be entered into the canon. You live a heroically virtuous life. That’s the easy part. You die or are killed. (It’s necessary to be dead. Canonically, there’s no such thing as a living saint.) Five years pass; though for both Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II, even this brief waiting period was waived. Next a petitioner—a parish, diocese, religious community, lay association, or civil body—must adopt (promote and finance) your cause. Then a postulator or official agent is named from the diocese in which you died. (If you die outside the place your virtue was best known, another diocese can petition to have your case returned to them.) At this point, everyone is calling you a Servant of God.
A formal inquest begins in the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (CCS). The local bishop collects any information about you, including all your published and unpublished works. (In the future, this will hang up the process indefinitely unless prospective saints routinely delete their e-mail.) Two theologians read everything in search of red flags. If there are none, they recommend you for the nihil obstat (no apparent obstacles).
Eyewitnesses are now interviewed extensively and transcripts made. If all goes well, a decree of validity is added to your cause by the CCS. The most crucial step follows: composing the positio, an enormous document including a comprehensive biography and the written testimonies. Three bodies of experts at the CCS comb through the positio: historians, theologians, and prelates. If your cause survives their scrutiny, you’ll either be fast-tracked to beatification as a martyr, or attain the title Venerable for your heroic virtues.
Once you’re venerable, you only need one exceptional miracle attributed to your intercession (vetted by the CCS) to become beatified and earn the title Blessed. From beatification to sainthood takes one more proven exceptional miracle. After your canonization, don’t expect to retire. People will be asking for your help forever.
Leviticus 20:7; Deuteronomy 7:6; Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 3:17; 6:11; Ephesians 2:21-22; Colossians 3:12-14; 1 Thessalonians 4:7; 5:23; 1 Peter 1:14-16; 2:9
Divinus Perfectionis Magister (Divine Teacher, Model of Perfection) – Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Constitutions, Vatican City, 1983. See: newsaints.faithweb.com/divinus.htm
Canonization: Theology, History, Process, by William H. Woestman (Faculty of Canon Law, St. Paul University, 2014)