How to Become a Saint

The canonization process, through which one becomes a saint in the Catholic Church, has long been a murky and political but, uh, still holy process.

In the early years of the Church, sainthood was reserved for martyrs and Jesus’s mom, Mary. (Joseph, father — err — stepdad(?) of Jesus, had to wait until 1962 to be given the honor of sainthood.)

After martyrdom stopped being a commonplace kind of thing for Christians, sainthood became a local process. Lay people would pray to a recently deceased, local holy person and the bishop would confirm they were, indeed, holy, and worthy of veneration in the afterlife. Of course, this process could, and did, lead to any popular deceased relative or friend to be rewarded with saintly honors.

In an attempt to limit the slew of saints, Medieval Church authorities administered ordeals of fire to relics. Basically, anyone who was suggested as a saint had their bones dug up and placed in a fire. If they survived, well, in the words Theodoric the German monk, “Now we know what we have!” That’d be a saint.

In other words, the process of canonization was, for lack of a better term, stupid and needed some restructuring. In 1200, Pope Innocent III, who was bent on pushing for papal power, issued a bull, an elaborate letter written by the pope, that only Rome could approve canonizations. He also established criteria needed for one to become a saint, including the verification of miracles and the defeat of a Devil’s advocate. Yes, the Church created a Devil’s advocate to argue against the canonization of an individual. Officially named the Promoter of the Faith, this person presented a case why a holy person shouldn’t be venerated as a saint.

Pope John Paul II removed this office in 1983, which paved the way for John Paul to canonize 483 saints. Now this man, who created more saints than the previous four centuries of popes, is also poised for the highest Church honor, much to the irritation of many Latin Americans.

photo credit: malouette, Creative Commons/flickr