The church follows a strict set of rules in the process.
There are three levels of sainthood. First, the candidate is named Venerable, then Blessed, and then finally a Saint.
Venerable is the title given to a deceased person recognized formally by the pope as having lived heroic virtues.
To be beatified and recognized as Blessed, one miracle acquired through the candidate’s intercession is required in addition to recognition of heroic virtue or martyrdom.
Canonization, or sainthood, requires a second miracle after beatification, though a pope may waive these requirements. The process is rigorous and involves a very detailed examination of the person’s life and also the effect of that person on others.
First, to determine who qualifies, the Vatican looks to its Congregation for the “Causes of Saints.” Typically, a would-be candidate’s “cause” is presented to the local bishop by his or her admirers who persuade him that the life of the candidate was a model of holiness.
Once the applicant is approved as a candidate, an appointed postulator interviews those who knew the individual. Personal testimonies, letters, and writings of the candidate’s are put together.
A relater then sifts through this information and prepares a position paper. If the volumes of evidence prove a life of “heroic virtue,” the person is given the title “venerable” by the Pope.
The next title, beatified (blessed), is attained if it can be proven that a miracle occurred after the death of the candidate, the result of someone praying to that person for help.
To finalize a canonization, it must be established that a second miracle occurred.
Martyrs are the exception. The pope can reduce their miracle requirement to one or waive it altogether.
Verifying a miracle is considered the most difficult hurdle in the process. Just deciding what constitutes one causes debate. A life of heroic virtue is obviously easier to establish than a healing that results from prayers.
In the Catholic faith, only God can make a saint; these four are among those who “have emerged as individuals who can light the way ahead,” as the Modern Catholic Encyclopedia puts it. But the means by which these saints are identified – and by whom – has varied over the history of the church.
Even more about Sainthood
The first Catholics revered as saints were martyrs who died under Roman persecution in the first centuries after Jesus Christ was born.
These martyrs were honored as saints almost instantaneously after their deaths, as Catholics who had sacrificed their lives in the name of God. Over the next few centuries, however, sainthood was extended to those who had defended the faith and led pious lives.
With the criteria for canonization not as strict, the number of saints soared by the sixth and seventh centuries. Bishops stepped in to oversee the process, and around 1200, Pope Alexander III, outraged over the proliferation, decreed that only the pope had the power to determine who could be identified as a saint.
Alexander was reportedly angered about one saint in particular whom he believed had been killed in an alcohol-fueled brawl and was therefore not worthy of canonization.
In the 17th century, the Vatican’s standards for sainthood were formalized. A non-martyr would need to have performed four posthumous miracles, usually spontaneous healings.
Today, the church requires a team of doctors to verify their veracity and prove that miraculous healings were not the result of modern medicine.