According to the Catholic Church, a saint is a person who is “formally recognized or canonized by the Church after death, who may be the object of venerations and prayers for intercession”. A person is recognized as a Saint after he or she undergoes a process known as canonization,

Mother Theresa(90092)Credit: Túrelio

 which is a series of steps taken by the Catholic Church to determine if someone is a saint. Note that the Catholic Church does not “make” Saints; rather, the Church simply undergoes a process to deem whether an individual should be officially recognized as a Saint. Some popular Saints include St. Valentine and St. Patrick. More recently, there has been a movement by Mother Theresa’s followers to make her a saint and to quicken the process.

To become a saint, someone cannot simply request to be a saint or apply for sainthood. Becoming a saint is normally a process where an individual lives a life devoted to Catholicism and God and helping others. After the individual’s death, the canonization process begins, which can take decades or centuries. As a result of Mother Theresa’s death in 1997, her followers were successfully able to persuade Pope John Paul II to waive the five-year rule where the canonization process does not occur until five years after death.

Living a Saintly Life

Becoming a saint is not an easy task; it is a lifestyle that one must be committed to following. The basic steps to becoming a saint during one’s lifetime are:

  1. Living one’s life serving God. If the person does not believe in God, the person cannot be a saint. This is the most basic requirement.
  2. Living a holy life. To be considered a saint, someone must dedicate their life to helping others, being a positive role model to others and one that would please God, and thereby establishing a strong reputation for compassion, strength and dedication. If someone has led a previous immoral life, but completely changed their lifestyle into one of complete holiness, the individual is still eligible for sainthood. At the same time, the individual does not have to be sinless (as no one is sinless), but must have worked to the best of his or her abilities to live a holy life.
St. Valentine
Credit: David Teniers

History of the Canonization Process

The canonization process begins after the person dies. In this process, the Catholic Church looks thoroughly at everything regarding the person’s life. Hence, no stone is left unturned and is also the reason why the canonization process can even take centuries.

The granting of sainthood has become more formalized process throughout time. Originally, martyrs were honored the title of saints around the time of Christ’s life on Earth.  Later, bishops became more involved in the role of approving one for sainthood. In the Medival era, there began a more authoritative process involving greater members of the Catholic Church. In the late 12th century, Pope Alexander III’s push for more stringent processes led to a more elaborate process for determining sainthood that involved the authority of the Catholic Church rather than simply the authority of bishops. Also, incorruptibility, which is the occurrence of an unusually naturally well-preserved corpse, was previously a pre-requisite for a candidate to reach sainthood.

A major recent change to the canonization process was Pope John Paul II’s decision to eliminate the role of Devil’s Advocate, in which a Church-appointed canon lawyer argues against the sainthood of a candidate through the questioning of evidence provided of the candidate’s life, miracles performed, etc. Since this reform in 1983, Pope John Paul II canonized almost 500 individuals, compared to only 98 canonizations that occurred in the 20th century before Pope John’s tenure.

St. Peter's Basilica(90095)
Credit: Andreas Tille

Modern Day Canonization Process

Canonization has four major steps, of which at each step the candidate is given a title to acknowledge the individual’s level of holiness. It is a lengthy, time-consuming and expensive process to recognize someone as a saint. Here are the steps that are undertaken:

First, a bishop investigates the individual’s life and writings to determine if the person has demonstrated virtue and holiness, which is then passed onto the Vatican. At this point, the individual is a servant of God after being accepted for consideration by theVatican.

In the next step, the Vatican Congregation for Cause of Saints, which is a panel including theologians and cardinals, examine the person’s life and reputation. The members hold a debt twice a month over the person’s eligibility for sainthood. If there is approval, the individual is deemed venerable. This individual is a clear role model for Catholics.

Beatification is the third step, in which the Church establishes that the individual has performed a posthumous (after death) miracle. Martyrs, however, do not require proof of having performed a miracle in order to be beatified. To determine the occurrence of a miracle, presenting only eyewitness accounts are insufficient. There must be proper documentation and authentication of the miracle. Scientists, medical experts and theological experts are consulted for knowledge and expertise to provide insight into the healing miracles. Doctors also examine the healing miracles to determine if there is any scientific or medical explanation. If there is no natural explanation, the healing is then recognized as being a miracle. If the healing is proven to be a miracle, this means that God has performed a miracle in response to the Blessed person’s prayer. For instance, if someone was ill and prayed to the candidate in question, and was thereby cured without any natural explanation, this would indicate a miracle occurred. After the pre-requisite of a posthumous miracle is completed, the pope can then deem the candidate as blessed.

The final stage is recognizing the Blessed as a being a Saint. Evidence of another miracle must be presented to the pope. If the pope approves, the candidate can be recognized publicly as a saint. The saint is then recognized to have Beatific Vision, which means that God has directly communicated to the saint when he or she has achieved perfect salvation (heaven).


Saint MatthewCredit: Guido Reni

Normally the act of beatification and recognition of sainthood occurs in St. Peter’s Square outside the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica. At other times, the public recognition of a candidate being blessed and becoming a saint occur where the person spent his or her life.

Some saints are selected to be patron saints, who are heavenly advocates for various things, such as countries, areas, occupations, families and people. Patron saints are believed to be protectors for the area in which they are in charge. Usually, patron saints become saints over places and specializations which they were involved in during their lifetime.