This is fantastic news. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints has announced that Pope John Paul II will be beatified on May 1st.
If you’re not familiar with the process, let me explain briefly. The point of canonization is two-fold. First, just as St. Paul does in Hebrews 11, the Church lifts up those who lived (and died) by faith as a model for those of us still running the race. We try and live as faithfully as they lived, and they show us what it means to be truly Christian. Second, we know that God is the God of the Living (Luke 20:37-38), and that those who have finished the race aren’t just models of Christian living, they’re also the “crowd of witnesses” cheering us on during our own race (Hebrews 12:1-2). So we both look to them as a model of what to do, and rely on them for help – asking for their prayers and intercession, etc.
So in the canonization process, the Church is looking for two things: (1) did the person live the kind of question that should be emulated? and (2) is the person now in Heaven, interceding on our behalf? Those two questions aren’t quite the same. After all, there are those whose lives seemed holy and righteous on the surface, but who were secretly evildoers – Matthew 7:22-23 speaks of evildoers who did “great works” in the name of Christ, yet weren’t saved. Likewise, there are those saved who the Church doesn’t uphold as a model. All of us who are saved are saved in spite of our sinfulness and errors, but if the Church is going to hold up models of Christianity, that sinfulness shouldn’t be so glaring that it’s scandalizing (or worse, convinces people that certain sins or errors aren’t so bad).
Instead of looking to their earthly lives, the second question is answered through miracles – if we ask them to intercede for us, and then miraculous events occur, we can know that they’re of God and with God. All that said, here are the four steps to becoming a canonized Saint:
- Servant of God: This is the first step. Usually, this begins no sooner than five years after the death of the individual, but in certain cases, the pope will waive that requirement, when the person’s virtuous life is well-known (the two famous cases being Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II). At this point, they investigate everything about you. It’s easier to get Top Secret clearance. They read through all of your writings, including private ones, to see what you were really like. For example, it was during this process that it came out that Mother Teresa went through years of spiritual dryness, where she couldn’t feel God’s presence and had to walk solely by faith. They’ll even exhume up your dead body (this process is actually helpful, since some Saints are “Incorruptibles,” meaning that their bodies don’t decompose after death. If you exhume the body and it looks like the person died five minutes ago, that’s a huge hint they’re a Saint.
- Venerable: After the investigation is complete, if your life is one worthy of emulation (this goes to the first question, remember), the Congregation for the Causes of Saints will recommend that the person be declared “Venerable.” It’s a declaration that you lead a life of “heroic virtue” that others should follow. At this stage, you don’t have a feast day (after all, we’re still not positive you’re in Heaven), but prayer cards are permitted and even encouraged. It’s through these prayers that the next steps are completed. This is the stage that John Paul II is currently at.
- Blessed: Beatification takes the next step, and says it’s “worthy of belief” that the person is in Heaven. It’s starting to answer that second question. For non-martyrs to be beatified, you must not only be Venerable, having lead a life of heroic virtue, but you must also perform a miracle after your death. In John Paul II’s case, he suffered from Parkinson’s disease. Shortly after his death, a nun suffering from Parkinson’s disease prayed to him; shortly thereafter, she was miraculously cured. And to count, the cure must be spontaneous, instantaneous, complete and lasting, and without any known medical explanation. Having investigated this extensively, the Congregation has confirmed that this was, in fact, a miracle, not just a medical fluke. And of course, we trust in God that when this process goes on, He’s not going to mislead us by having miraculous or miraculous-seeming events happen when a person is prayed to who isn’t in Heaven. On May 1st, John Paul II will no longer be “Venerable John Paul II,” but “Blessed John Paul II.” At this point, a feast day is permitted, but usually only local ones (in this case, the Polish church will likely be permitted to celebrate it).
- Canonization: This is the Church’s declaration that the person is a Saint, and certainly does enjoy the Beatific Vision in Heaven. To establish this, you need to perform two more miracles. At that point, the evidence is overwhelming — the person seemed saintly, and when we pray to them, miracles keep happening.