The Making of a Saint

The present Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, has beatified and canonised more individuals than any other Pope in the history of the Church. Indeed, the total number of his Blesseds and Saints is by now more than those of all the other Popes added together! Lest you think that the list of candidates for these honours must be thinning out, let me reassure you that the contrary is very much the case. In 1999, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints published a comprehensive index of Causes currently in progress. Giving each candidate four or five lines, the Index is some 400 pages long: no shortage of future saints therefore!

    John Henry Cardinal Newman is one of the candidates on that Index; for us, as for so many around the world, he is regarded as one of the most important. How did he get on the list? What procedures have to be followed in order to make of the great English Cardinal a Saint of the Catholic Church? I am often asked such questions. The process is relatively long, but the various steps are very clear.

    Down the centuries the procedures for beatification and canonisation have changed and developed. Currently, the rules are those laid down in 1983 by Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Constitution 'Divinus perfectionis magister'. The rules indicate that the process starts at the Diocesan level; the Bishop of the place where the candidate lived is responsible for starting the procedure. We saw this with Cardinal Newman’s Cause – our then Archbishop, Maurice Couve de Murville, had to set up a new Historical Commission and a Diocesan Tribunal to investigate Cardinal Newman’s reputation for sanctity. Obviously this is a crucial step in any Cause – was the man or woman concerned regarded as holy, with a reputation which has stood the test of time. Also, the Commission has the job of investigating the writings of any candidate, to make sure they are sound and free from error, as well as looking at things written about him or her.

    The Historical Commission for Cardinal Newman had begun its work in 1980, before the new legislation came in, and they had an enormous job to do, given the amount Newman wrote (some 90 volumes; as many as 70,000 letters), not to mention whole libraries written about him, during and after his lifetime. Not many candidates have been so prolific, or so much written about. The Commission finished its work in May 1986, and submitted to the Diocesan Tribunal 6,483 pages on Newman’s life and virtues. The Tribunal soon sent this document to Rome (some may remember the ceremony in St Chad’s Cathedral to mark this), and the next stage began.

    For any Cause, Cardinal Newman’s being no exception, this stage is the one where the Postulator of the Cause gets to work. At the time the Postulator was the late Fr Vincent Blehl SJ. He had the job of writing the Positio super Virtutibus, an abridgement of the Commission’s findings and a sort of spiritual biography, arranged along lines determined by the Congregation for Saints in Rome. The object of this work is to enable the Roman authorities to judge whether or not the candidate lived the Christian virtues to an heroic degree. I will refer to the contents of Cardinal Newman’s Positio in a future column; suffice to say here that Fr Blehl finished his two-volume work in 1989, and in early 1991 the Pope was able to declare – remarkably quickly – that Cardinal Newman was indeed 'Venerable', that is, worthy of veneration, and hence a suitable candidate for beatification and canonisation.

    The next stage in any Cause is the most difficult to predict, and it is where we are with Cardinal Newman. This is the point where it becomes necessary to prove a miracle of physical healing through the candidate’s intercession. We wait for this to happen, but when it does, the procedures once again are clear. The Bishop of the place where the reputed miracle took place, helped by the Postulator and other experts, has to collect the necessary evidence – through interviews, medical reports etc. – and then the Postulator writes a report – called the Positio super Miraculis – which is submitted to the Congregation for Saints and its board of doctors and medical experts.

    The Board has to agree that the cure was instantaneous, complete and lasting, and inexplicable according to medical procedures. Their verdict is submitted to the Congregation’s theologians, Bishops and Cardinals for further approval. Finally, it is sent to the Pope, who makes the final decision. Only then can the Beatification take place. It is obvious, I am sure, that all this is done in the most rigorous and scientific way. We should not forget that the whole job has to be done a second time before a Canonisation can take place.

    The number of Beatifications and Canonisations nowadays shows not only the variety of Saints that abound, but also how active the grace of God is in working miracles. It also tells us of the extraordinary amount of work the Congregation for Saints gets through each year. A relatively small number of people perform a work of lasting significance for the Church around the world.

    Let us continue to pray that we will soon reach the happy stage where a miracle attributed to Cardinal Newman’s intercession is being investigated in Rome! Only our prayers will bring that about.

The Very Rev’d Paul Chavasse