The Path to Sainthood

The canonization process begins at the diocesan level at least five years after the candidate's death. This practice dates back to ancient times when families would gather and share a meal in honor of the deceased, notes Rev. Michael Witczak, associate professor of liturgical studies and sacramental theology at Catholic University. The earliest example of a community honoring a revered person is from the city of Smyrna, where Polycarp, a second-century Christian bishop, had been burned at the stake.

The diocesan bishop initiates the cause by petitioning the Vatican and appointing a local investigator to gather testimony about the person's life. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints officially opens a cause as it did in September 2002 when it named Archbishop Fulton Sheen a Servant of God.

The testimony collected as part of the investigation of Sheen's life filled 15,000 pages, used to create a positio, or two-volume position paper, laying out the case for sainthood. Monsignor Stanley Deptula, executive director of the Archbishop Fulton John Sheen Foundation, and his bishop presented the positio to Pope Benedict XVI in May 2011. The congregation then concurred that Archbishop Sheen possessed truly heroic virtue and the Pope declared him venerable in July 2012.

The next step, beatification, requires the verification of a miracle. Once the candidate is beatified, the Vatican requires a second miracle for canonization. (For a martyr, only one miracle is required.)

"The Church acknowledges that saints have extraordinary powers of intercession because they have a privileged place before God," notes Father Witczak. Saints also serve as role models of virtuous living, he says. "As Catholics, I think we look for a storyline for our lives. The life of a saint can serve as an inspiration to our own life's journey."

The Church canonizes saints of varying ages at different periods in history, so "there are many examples that we can emulate in own path of holiness," says Father Witczak. "We are all called to be saints. We all hope to get to heaven."