Strictness and Caution in Recognizing Sainthood

Author: Nicola Gori

Strictness and Caution in Recognizing Sainthood

Nicola Gori

An interview with Archbishop Bartolucci, Secretary of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints

The process that leads to sainthood is difficult; but the process that leads to its official recognition by the Church is no easier. To be registered in the Roll of Saints, requirements and procedures are infinitely stricter than those of traditional professional structures. Were we dealing with a corporation, it would certainly be one of the most democratic in existence: kings, aristocrats, the bourgeoisie, proletarians, peasants, without distinction of race, culture, place or age. The "certificate" of sainthood is granted by the Church only through the words of the pontiff who relies on the conclusions of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. It is in this dicastery that the life, works and writings of the candidate to the honours of the altar are subjected to meticulous examination. The judgement is made attentively and scrupulously so that there may be no doubts as to the holiness of those examined. In this interview with L'Osservatore Romano Archbishop Marcello Bartolucci, Secretary of the Congregation — where he has worked since 1977 — briefly explains the mechanics and procedures for the process of causes.

You began your service at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints almost 30 years ago. Have you witnessed a certain evolution in the procedures for the examination of canonical causes?

The juridical norms that regulate the Causes of Saints have continuously evolved over the centuries. This, in any case is historically certain: since the first centuries of the Church, bishops adopted strict procedures for the official recognition of holy people worthy of canonization by the Pope, and for the concession of their official liturgical worship [public veneration]. A particularly interesting change occurred in about the year 1000, when canonizations were no longer by bishops but by the Pope. Another important period for our legislation was in the 17th century that witnessed the important legislative work of Urban VIII and the affirmation of beatification, previously unknown. The contribution of the 1917 Code of Canon Law is memorable; it marked the first fundamental collating of the complex and fragmented legislation of the Causes of Saints. When I began my service to the Congregation in 1977 the canonical norms in force were still those of the 1917 Code. Nevertheless they had been revised and supplemented by Pius XI with his provisions for ancient causes, by Pius XII with his study of presumed miracles and by Paul VI, who visibly streamlined the diocesan and Roman phase of causes and reformed the Congregation's internal organization. Then, in 1983 there was the reform of John Paul II that is now in fully in force. Benedict XVI has also wished to contribute with three measures: by emphasizing the
theological and liturgical difference between beatification and canonization; by increasing the number of experts for medical consultation; and by granting the Congregation the faculty of appointing seven relators ad casum in addition to the official members.

Can saints help contemporary men and women not to be ensnared by relativism and indecision?

Of course. Saints, too, are marked by the culture, spirituality and history of their time and background. This is the ephemeral and transitory aspect that cannot be replicated in seasons and places different from the original ones. Yet in every saint there is a dimension beyond time. It is of perennial timeliness since the essence of holiness is communion with God and the perfect imitation of Christ. What saints bequeath to us is their conformity to Christ and the originality with which they were able to rework and present anew in their epoch the thought, words, manner and style of Christ. The Church is grateful to theologians who, with their knowledge, have been able to expand the understanding of Revelation. However, in the treasure of the Church an even nobler place is occupied by saints, for they have translated that "understanding" into "experience", the cogitatio into amor, the scientia fidei into scientia caritatis. Saints are those who know Christ best and are the sharpest exegetes of the Gospel. If Christ is the supreme truth of God and man, the saints, as a reflection of Christ, participate in his splendour and in his radiant power. Saints are essentially trustworthy companions for anyone in search of "absolute" truth and "strong" thinking that can overcome relativism, survive fashions and nourish the human spirit.

What does it mean to speak of the theology of saints?

God is sanctity. His essence is holiness. Jesus is "the Holy One of God". The Church is holy because her head is holy, because the Holy Spirit dwells within her, because she possesses the means of sanctification, because her children are holy, although, obviously, at various levels of perfection. The discussion of holiness is part of theology. This discourse can be descending, from God to us; or ascending, from the saints to the heart of the Trinity. In both cases saints are both the subject and object of theology. As subjects they instruct through their lives and sometimes through their writings. However, they can also become the object of research by those who study the things of God. When the Church and theologians study and contemplate saints and propose their veneration and imitation, they are doing no more than pointing out safe paths on which to reach God's truth and penetrate the mystery of the Church which is holy and sanctifying. It is no exaggeration to say that saints are a true "theological locus". This is how some have seen them, including St John of Avila and Melchior Cano in the 16th century. This is also the perception of Benedict XVI — who repeatedly points to saints as those who have existentially penetrated the mystery of God — unlike certain great academic theologians for whom the essential can also remain hidden. The title of Doctor which John Paul II conferred on little Thérèse of Lisieux confirms that saints are masters in the things of God independently of their culture. In saying this I am referring first to the canonized saints but I do not exclude saints who are still with us, whose lives are steeped in God, who are truly the light of the world. Many conversions to the Gospel were and are brought about through the often silent witness of Christians fervent in faith, charity, contemplation and service. Thus it is important to have a lively, familiar and direct relationship with the saints of the past and of the present. They teach us true theology and show us how to become theologians ourselves.

Religious congregations or dioceses often lack financial resources for a cause of canonization. Is there some means of meeting these needs?

Causes of saints can be sponsored and supported financially by various bodies: for example, by religious congregations, dioceses, parishes, associations or individual members of the faithful. Of course not everyone has the same income. What then? The lack of funds is a false problem and should not hinder a cause's progress. Indeed, causes of servants of God whose fame of holiness is sound and widespread always have the necessary means to reach their goal. The faithful are delighted to share in so noble an undertaking. On the contrary, "poor" causes often lack means because knowledge of the respective servants of God is scarce and the devotion to them lukewarm. Then there is the rare case of communities deeply involved in promoting their own servants of God but who are short of funds. The Congregation for Causes of Saints is sensitive to such situations and intervenes practically.

What guarantees do canonical processes offer to ascertain the holiness of candidates?

The holiness we seek in causes of beatification and canonization flows from grace and is brought about in the perfection of love and of the other Christian virtues. There are canonical guarantees that are primarily ensured by the thoroughness of investigation; later, by repeated and in-depth collegial judgements; then by the Pope's decision, which is part of his ordinary Magisterium. This was also the opinion of St Thomas Aquinas and is that of Benedict XVI, the Magister of saints' causes, who uses a particularly intense expression when he says that in canonizations the Pope "assumes the divine power in himself". Moreover, the same historical and juridical procedure assures us of the trustworthiness of the investigation and the reliability of the judgements. First, there is the discernment by the people of God, by the postulator and by the diocesan bishop. Then, comes the meticulous study of the relator of the cause who scrutinizes the virtues of martyrdom. This is followed by the determination of the cause's merit by a panel of theologians and then by the cardinals and bishops. The presumed miracles require further examination and must gain the approval of many experts, medical and technical, whose duty it is to ascertain whether the matter in question is scientifically explicable.

Did the Instruction "Sanctorum Mater" of 2007 succeed in encouraging greater caution and accuracy by introducing saints' causes at the diocesan level?

Experience assures me that the Congregation has always proceeded with the necessary "caution and accuracy". The diocesan tribunal is equally strict. When uncertainties and gaps exist the Dicastery requires further investigation. The examination of the legal validity of the enquiry and the work of the relators are very attentive to the soundness of the proof, so that nothing, either for or against the cause, is omitted. In fact, there is no doubt that a complete and exhaustive collection of the testimonial proofs and documentation is the best guarantee of a cause's success. Although Sanctorum Mater is not a legislative text it has without a doubt facilitated the application of the Apostolic Constitution Divinus Perfectionis Magister and the Normae Saervandae of 1983.

John Paul II's Beatification has relaunched the figure and message of the Polish Pope. What is the most up-to-date aspect of his holiness?

Bl. John Paul II was the focus of attention of the Church and of the world, before and after his death. His long pontificate, exceptionally full of events, teachings and prophetic gestures, is engraved in the memories of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The spiritual heritage of this Pope is great, and I believe that many more years will be necessary to understand it and enhance it in its entirety. I think that time will benefit the memory of John Paul II. We all knew him and each one of us has a personal idea of him. For my part, what I find most surprising is his humanity, totally imbued with faith. God was truly the summit of his thoughts and his actions. His continual striving for God, however, did not remove him from history, from his contemporaries or from himself. He was fully a man of the earth and fully a man of God and of the Church. Here, in my opinion, lies the power and timeliness of this Pontiff who was marvellously able to sum up in himself a very balanced harmony and virtue between body and mind, between Heaven and earth, between service and contemplation. And the other — equally significant — aspect is his unreserved dedication to his mission as universal pastor of the Church. As a man and as a Pope he lived the Totus Tuus to the point of heroism. In an epoch of instability and insecurity, John Paul II has much to teach us.

Hasn't the widespread popular devotion to Karol Woityła created — even indirectly — expectations that have speeded up the process of the cause at the expense of the accuracy of the procedures?

John Paul II has been surrounded, in his life and after his death, by unprecedented devotion and the fame of holiness, at least in recent times. He walked towards the world and the world walked towards him. This ecclesial phenomenon benefited his cause because it accelerated its initial phases and procedures, with no damage to them or to the customary medical examinations they entail. As with all causes, the cause of Pope Wojtyła also has had to undergo and pass all the examinations prescribed by the regulations in force. The acclamation of the people "Santo subito", in no way undermined the seriousness of the investigations or the judgements of the cause. The Congregation never let itself be impressed by either favourable or contrary opinions, or even by the presumed dates indicated for the beatification by journalists. With its usual reserve and prudence it did everything whenever possible, with total respect for the scientific and theological competence of each one. And it arrived at the recognition of the miracle with a tranquil conscience and the certainty that what had been decided was in conformity with the objective truth.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
10-17 August 2011, page 6

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
880 Park Avenue
P.O. Box 777
Baltimore, MD 21203
Phone: (443) 263-0248
Fax: (443) 524-3155