Beatification and canonisation

Fr Henryk Misztal

Recently there have been many articles and programmes about beatification and canonisation, especially referring to our great countrymen. But we do not always know the difference between them. What is the purpose of applying some rules to sanctity as intimate unity of man and Christ? Why should we differentiate between the cult of saints and beatified if they both are in Christ’s Kingdom? Could the Venerable Servant of God John Paul II be canonised without beatification?

Origin and development of concepts

Since its beginnings the Church, taking Christ’s words spoken on the cross to the good criminal, ‘today you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43), made verdicts concerning recognition of sanctity, i.e. achieving the kingdom of Christ. Ancient Greeks and Romans knew the practice of ‘deification’ (apotheosis), conducted by the emperors and the senate. Christianity has never treated sanctity as deification. Sanctity has always been connected with moral perfection, flowing from love for Christ (confessors) or giving life for him (martyrs). After the death of St Stephan the Christian community made a solemn funeral and similarly the first cultus of holy martyrs and confessors was born spontaneously by people who gathered at their graves, especially on the anniversaries of their deaths, i.e. their births into heaven. There the faithful prayed, celebrated the Eucharist, read the descriptions of the martyr’s death (the martyrs’ acts) or their lives or collections of the confessors’ miracles. Their names, written in the calendar of the community, were passed to other communities. Thus their cultus spread. This spontaneous group of believers usually had the approval of the bishop who participated in those gatherings and today it is regarded as the first form of canonisation. In the early Middle Ages bishops canonised either by solemn translations of the relics (‘translation’) from the cemetery to the church or another worthy place or by the transferring (‘elevatio’) from the grave over the ground level. They did it fulfilling the request of the synod, university or orders. In order to avoid mistakes or too easy recognition of someone’s sanctity in 1181 Pope Alexander III issued the decree ‘Andivimus’, which connected canonisation with the decision of the Holy See. His decree entered into force in 1234 after it had been included to the Decretals of Gregory IX. In 1588 Pope Sixtus V instituted the Sacred Congregation of Rites that was to deal with the matters of canonisation. Therefore, the phenomenon of sanctity received legal regulations because of the need of better verification and documentation.
Another form authorising the public cult is beatification that originated in the Middle Ages when bishops, synods or even popes permitted certain acts of the public cult, which was, however, limited to specific places or forms. The first beatification formulas were, ‘facultatem facimus ut Venerabilis Servus Dei N. N. Beati nomine.’ But it was Pope Leo X that reserved the right of beatification to the Holy See in 1515. But art, poetry or painting did not differentiate between beatification and canonisation. People still venerated publicly those who were not raised to the altars by the Apostolic See. That’s why in 1634 Urban VIII clearly differentiated between these institutions and defined their procedures but he made certain exceptions for the so-called ancient saints. This strict procedure, after having been slightly changed and developed, was included in the Code of Canon Law in 1917 and Popes Pius X, Pius XI and John Paul II contributed to its development and simplification, without changing the very concept of canonisation and beatification.

Canonisation and beatification today

In the Catholic Church canonisation has its moral dimension (ascetics), ecclesiastical (theology of spirituality), sociological (message), liturgical (cult of saints, intercession) and legal. According to the canon law canonisation is the final papal act through which the person who has been recognised as blessed is included into the catalogue of saints and whom the pope orders to give the public church cult, entitled to saints. The Catholic theology connects papal infallibility with the act of papal canonisation but does not treat it as a dogma or a truth of faith without which one cannot be saved. However, it is a dogmatic pronouncement because the pope declares the supernatural reality on the earth – salvation of a given person – and orders to venerate the person in the entire Church. Consequently, this act obliges the pope to have the highest level of moral certainty. The pope gains it through the opinion of the people of God (opinion of sanctity), court verification (process) and supernatural confirmation (miracle). The aim of canonisation is to worship the Triune God, strengthen faith, popularise holy life and encourage to follow the example of saints as well as to pray through their intercession before God. Currently, canonisation as a final act is always proceeded by beatification.
Beatification is understood as a papal act authorising the public cult, limited to specific country, city, diocese or religious family or acts (Mass, breviary office). Legally understood beatification does not include an order but only permission of a local cult and is not a final act of the pope but an answer to the pastoral needs of local churches as far as the cult of saints is concerned. However, the local cult of some blessed can be spontaneously spread even in the whole Church (Fr Pio, Mother Theresa of Calcutta). Then we need to approve only one miracle conducted after the beatification to have a canonisation.
The third form, which Urban VIII allowed, happens very rarely. It is the raising to the altars through the so-called approval of the cult of the saints venerated in the years 1181-1534. In order to conduct such a beatification the Church needs to prove the continuity of the cult, heroicity of virtues and miracles and in the case of martyrs – the fact of martyrdom. In order to canonise the old saints miracles conducted after their beatifications must be approved or some ancient miracle must be recognised as it was the case of Blessed Stanislaw Kazimierczyk of Krakow.

Reference to our hopes

We are waiting for the beatification of the Venerable Servant of God Fr Jerzy Popieluszko. After the decree on martyrdom – according to the old custom – there is not need to approve a miracle through the martyr’s intercession because martyrdom for faith was clearly proven. The date of this beatification has already been given. It will be held in Warsaw on 6 June 2010.
The case of the approval of the miracle through the intercession of Blessed Stanislaw Kazimierczyk is relatively simple although it is precedential. The approval of the miracle conducted by the formal act of beatification concerning the person who had received public cult for years was recognised as a sufficient argument for the papal decree on canonisation. The canonisation will take place in the Vatican on 17 October 2010.
Referring to the Venerable Servant of God John Paul II the process to approve a miracle made by God through his intercession is being finalised after the promulgation of the decree on the heroicity of his virtues. It is the sworn medical doctors, theologians and the Ordinary Assembly of Cardinals and Bishops of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints that will decide about the inexplicability of the sudden cure. After receiving their positive opinion Pope Benedict XVI can decide about beatification and announce its date. Insisting on canonisation without prior beatification of John Paul II could be understood as infringing the ancient law and as our lack of confidence in his sanctity. We trust that the matter of approval of another miracle after beatification is a matter of near future. Can our private but universal conviction about his sanctity and intercession before God be exposed to a longer trial or can we be disappointed?

"Niedziela" 13/2010

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: