It Means To Be Blessed
For many, even in the Church, the Catholic
practice of beatifying and canonizing is an enigma. Why does the Church do it? How does
the Church do it? What are the implications of being canonized, or in the case of
Jacinta and Francisca beatified?
First it should be noted that
according to the testimony of Sacred Scripture every Christian is a saint. The Greek New
Testament speaks in many places of the hagios (Acts
15:25, 31; Eph
1:3 and others). The Latin Vulgate speaks of the sancti, which is rendered in
some English translations as the saints and in others as the holy ones.
As St. Peter tells Christians, "you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy
nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you
out of darkness into his wonderful light." The saints are set apart by God through
baptism, filled with His divine life (the Kingdom of God within), and called to announce
that Kingdom's presence in the world to the whole human race. Thus it is that in the
Scriptural usage all of those baptized into Christ and in the state of grace can rightly
be called saints.
In another sense, stricter and more
technical, the saints are those in whom Christ's victory over sin, the devil and
death has not just begun, as it has in us, but has been completed. This is the case when the wayfaring state
of earthy life is concluded and the holiness of life attained in the pilgrim's state is
realized perfectly in heaven. Even while saying that no one is truly good but God (Mt
19:17), Christ called us to the perfection of goodness, of holiness, "be perfect
as the heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt
1:4), since nothing imperfect will enter into heaven (Rev
The early Church understood that only
the Christian who followed Christ perfectly would go immediately into the heavenly
Jerusalem. Others would enter the purifying fires of purgation "to be made
perfect," from which they would not depart until they had "paid the last
Cor 3:13, 15). Since perfection was conformity to Christ in His death, a process begun
at baptism, the martyr (literally, witness) for Christ was seen to have achieved the goal.
Thus, during the age of persecution (from Pentecost to 311 AD) esteem for those Christians
who had been killed in hatred of the faith (in odium fidei) lead them to extol
their example of heroic witness to Christ, to guard and preserve their relics (the
trophies of victory over death) and to celebrate the anniversary of their birthday
into eternal life. The Circular Letter of the Church of Smyrna on the Martyrdom of St.
Polycarp (155 AD) illustrates this esteem perfectly.
We have at last gathered his bones,
which are dearer to us than priceless gems and purer than gold, and laid them to rest
where it was befitting they should lie. And if it be possible for us to assemble again,
may God grant us to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom with gladness, thus to recall
the memory of those who fought in the glorious combat, and to teach and strengthen by his
example, those who shall come after us.
Finally, the greatest tribute of
honor that could be rendered to the martyr was to have his or her name mentioned in the Canon
(or Eucharistic Prayer) of the Mass, accompanying the Lord in His Redemptive Sacrifice.
This was done on their feast day, the day of their entry into eternal life. The Roman
Canon (Eucharistic Prayer 1) retains the eloquent testimony of the Roman Church for the
Mother of the Lord, for the apostles, and the most significant martyrs of Rome and Italy.
"In union with the whole Church
...we honor Mary ... Peter and Paul, Andrew, James, John, Thomas, Philip, Bartholomew,
Matthew, Simon and Jude; we honor Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius, Cyprian,
Lawrence, Chrysogonus, John and Paul, Cosmas and Damian." (Communicates)
"For ourselves, too, we ask some
share in the fellowship of your apostles and martyrs, with John the Baptist, Stephen,
Matthias, Barnabas, Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter, Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha,
Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia and all the saints." (Nobis quoque
Thus, in the early centuries of the
Church the popular acclaim of sanctity in the martyrs, the veneration of their relics, the
honoring of their names in private and liturgical prayer (with the consent of the local
bishop) canonized important witnesses to Christ in the universal, and the local,
Church, as examples of the perfect fidelity to which all Christians are called.
Although the age of martyrs has never
truly ended, the relative peace that existed after the Edict of Milan in 311 meant that
martyrdom was a rarer example of perfection than it had been. The Church began to look for
other models of holiness, other ways in which conformity to Christ could be a witness to
the faithful and the world, the living out in daily Christian life of the dying to self
and living for Christ undertaken in baptism. This witness was found in those whose white
martyrdom of heroic virtue confessed to the world the triumph of light over
darkness, of grace over sin, of the new man over the old man (Eph
4:17-24), and thus of Christ over Satan. Thus, such Confessors, the witness
of whose life had the fame of holiness, began to enter the roles of the
(religious veneration) was generally of a single diocese, but as the fame of the person
spread it could encompass several dioceses, and in the case of Mary, the apostles and
other significant figures be universal in fact. Although the records of early Church
Councils shows occasional interventions to correct abuses in the naming of saints
and to establish criteria for their acclamation, the process continued to be a local one
with some few examples of Popes declaring saints of universal veneration.
The first canonical process seems to
be that of Pope Urban II (1089-99), in the "Cause" of Nicholas of Trani. The
Bishop of Trani was ordered to conduct a local investigation into his alleged sanctity and
miracles, which then would be submitted to the Pope for judgement. This first
"Cause" dragged on over several pontificates, and seems not to have been
concluded favorably. It also seems to have occasioned developments in the legal procedures
themselves, Callistus II (1119-24) requiring all causes to include a critical biography of
the Servant of God. As often happens in the Church, abuses brought about major
developments in Church practice. In 1170 Pope Alexander III decreed that no one could be
declared a saint without the permission of the Supreme Pontiff. This was precipitated by
the acclamation as saint of a Swedish "martyr" who was killed while drunk, and
thus could not be truly said to be a willing witness for Christ.This regulation was
formally incorporated into Church law by Pope Gregory IX in 1234.
The centralization of the
canonization process in Rome was an inevitable development of the Church's theological and
canonical Tradition. While the acclamation of the faithful and the acceptance of the
bishop is in most cases an adequate witness to the holiness of the person, it only
provides a moral certainty, a reasonable credibility, that the person is in heaven. In
order to give universal witness to the sanctity of someone a higher standard needed to be
invoked, that of the charism of the infallibility of the Church. According to Catholic
teaching the Church, the Mystical Christ, cannot err in matters of faith and morals (Jn
16:13). The practical exercise of this infallibility falls to the apostolic office,
which in the name and by the authority of Christ the Head of the Church intends to bind
the faithful in a matter of faith or morals. This can be done either by the college of
bishops as a whole, as in a Council (Acts 15:28 15:28), or by the Successor of St. Peter (Lk
22:32, Acts 15:7-12 15:7-12). By the grace of the Holy Spirit Christ protects such
judgements of universal import for the Church from err. The common opinion of theologians
historically, therefore, is that papal Canonization is an exercise of the charism of
infallibility, protecting the Church from raising an unfitting individual to the universal
veneration of the faithful. As in the case of a dogmatic declaration, the declaration of a
saint inserts that person into the heart of the Church's life, in this case into the
central mystery of the faith, the Eucharist, and must by its nature be free from error.
Cause for Beatification/Cause for Canonization.
According to an ancient theological
axiom grace builds on nature. For this reason the Church is very careful to
exhaust the human and reasonable means of determining the sanctity of a person before
relying on supernatural ones. As noted earlier the papal canonization process quickly
developed certain procedures which had to be followed in the diocese and in Rome, such as
the collecting of evidence, of testimonies of witnesses and the writing of a critical
biography. By the fourteenth century two regular processes were in place, the Cause for
Beatification and the Cause for Canonization. The first, when successfully concluded,
allowed some measure of veneration of the Blessed by the faithful, in his or her diocese,
by a religious order, by a nation. The second permitted universal veneration of the Saint
by the Church. The concluding stage of each was conducted in the form of a trial, with
sides for or against. The office of the Promoter of the Faith or Devil's Advocate,
who argued against the Servant of God, dates from this era.
The Processes have gone through
several revisions and refinements over the centuries, including two recent ones, under
Pope Paul VI in 1969 and under Pope John Paul II in 1983. Included in Pope Paul's reforms
were the consolidation of the processes into a single Cause for Canonization.
Notable in those of Pope John Paul II was the elimination of the Devil's Advocate,
as well as many procedural changes.
What it means to be Blessed.
Up until the beatification of a
Servant of God Catholics must observe a strict rule of non cultus, meaning that
while they may privately pray to and venerate an individual whom they believe to be in
heaven there may not be any public acts of religious veneration. In fact, the presence of a cultus
before the approval of the Church is given can end the candidacy of a Servant of God.
With Beatification a number of marks
of veneration can be given to a person. The most important one is that a feast day, with
its proper Mass and Office (Liturgy of the Hours), can be granted to particular
dioceses and religious orders and congregations. For example, Blessed Takeri Tekawitha,
the Lily of the Mohawks, is celebrated on the liturgical calendars of the U.S. and Canada.
In the U.S. and Mexico there is a feast day for Blessed Juan Diego, the visionary of
Guadalupe. By analogy, this privilege is somewhat akin to the practice of episcopal
canonization earlier in Church history, except that a bishop manifests to Rome his flock's
desire to venerate a Blessed and Rome grants such local veneration.
With beatification comes the
restricted right to venerate the relics of Jacinta and Francisco, to have public prayers to
them and to
honor their images in places of worship where this is granted by the Holy See. It is
restricted in the sense that it is the veneration of a part of the Church and not the
whole, and lacks the finality of canonization.
*Cultus. A certain negativity has attached
itself to the English term cult (a false, exaggerated religious system) which
should not be applied to the older, properly understood, Latin term cultus. The
Latin term in the ancient world had the meaning of religious worship of God or a god. It
could be applied to the True God (which would be legitimate) or to a pagan god among gods
(which would be idolatry). In using the term, but with specific theological meaning, the
Church distinguishes between the forms of worship appropriate to God, Trinity, Christ and
the Blessed Sacrament (called latria, worship or adoration, in the strict sense),
and the forms of veneration and honor appropriate to the Blessed Virgin, the angels and
the saints (called hyperdulia or the greatest measure of veneration in the case
of Mary and dulia or simple veneration in the case of the angels and other
saints). It is a principle of justice that we must honor, respect and show gratitude in
proper measure to those who are part of God's plan for our natural and supernatural life.
God commands it in the Fourth Commandment. This includes our natural parents who gave us
life, but also those to whom we owe a debt for their role in the redemption (1
Cor 4:14-16, Heb.
13:7), first among whom is the Blessed Virgin Mary (Lk
1:48).But without the fidelity of the angels, who served as God's messengers, of the
prophets, of the apostles, the evangelists, the Fathers and the great and holy men and
women of all ages, we today would not have the faith. That is the foundation of our
individual and collective gratitude for the working of God's grace in their lives and thus
of their cultus (in the way understood by the Church). Return to text