It’s a line we recite every week – perhaps more than once a week, and yet, how often do we stop to question if we really understand what we mean by professing a belief in the communion of saints? I’ll be the first to admit that I have managed to rush past this line more times than I can count without stopping to question my own professed belief in the Church’s teaching on saints. Growing up in a Catholic family and attending Catholic school, I’ve been taught the importance of the “s” vs “S” saint, but how do saints become Saints? How many saints are there? Isn’t there something about miracles involved with this?
With the celebration of All Saints Day coming up this Friday (reminder: Holy Day of Obligation) I’ve decided to look more into these questions in an effort to learn more about my faith.
The communion of saints referred to in the Apostle’s Creed every Sunday refers to a communion of “holy things”, most importantly, the Eucharist. It also refers to a communion of all believers, both living and deceased, it is the unified body of Christ. The reference refers to all saints, all believers in Christ, saints with a lowercase “s”. The reference refers to us, to you and me. But what about the Saints that we so often hear about? The ones whose heads were chopped off for their beliefs? The ones who were crucified upside down or were thrown into a lion’s den? Where do they fit into the Church’s teaching?
The history of Saints in the Church is long and profound but let’s start with a process we have all heard of yet may not have a deep understanding of, the process of being canonized a saint. A recent saint canonized in 2004 by Pope John Paul II is St. Gianna Beretta Molla, I will use her story to help illuminate this complex process.
Canonization is a process that starts generally 5 years after the individual’s death and follows these steps:
(1) “Servant of God”. A bishop gives permission to open an investigation into a candidate for sainthood in response to a petition by members of the Church. This investigation, run by a council of laypeople –generally started by friends or family members– is quite exhaustive, it includes detailed accounts of speeches, writings and eye witness accounts of the individual’s work and life recorded in a detailed biography. The conclusion of the individual ends in presenting the detailed account of this individual, now called a “Servant of God”, to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints (part of the Roman Curia). The Servant of God is designated to a particular individual, called a postulator. The postulator gathers more evidence and eventually receives permission to exhume the body for examination.
-St. Gianna’s cause was opened up by the Cardinal of Milan after hearing stories of her holiness and dedication to a virtuous life. St. Gianna’s family had been presented with an award by the administration of Milan honoring her memory ten years prior. This award specifically honored her commitment to life – pregnant with her fourth child, St. Gianna refused an abortion and hysterectomy even after realizing that continuing the pregnancy could result in death. St. Gianna delivered her last child on April 21, 1962 and died as a result of complications with the pregnancy seven days later.
(2) “Heroic in Virtue”. If the postulator is able to gather enough evidence that the “Servant of God” has demonstrated the cardinal and theological virtues to a heroic degree, he is recommended to the Pope. At this point, the Pope can declare the “Servant of God” as “Venerable”. At this point, the Catholic Church encourages its members to pray for a miracle through the intercession of this Hero in Virtue.
-Evidence was gathered by the newly formed Gianna Physician’s Guild in conjunction with the Cardinal Carlo Martini, Archbishop of Milan. Her case was presented to Pope John Paul II and received official approval to continue the process.
(3) “Blessed”. Beatification is the last step before being declared a Saint. For an individual to be beatified, they must be declared either a martyr or a confessor. In order to be considered a confessor, a miracle must have taken place through his or her intercession. The miracle is determined through an official Vatican commission through a process similar to the scientific methodology.
-Because St. Gianna was not a martyr, a miracle had to be attributed to her in order for her to become “blessed”. St. Gianna’s first miracle story takes place in Brazil in a hospital founded by her brother. A young woman was brought in one night having delivered her fourth child a couple days earlier. The young woman had a serious rectal-vaginal fistula that was only able to be operated on in a hospital over 600 kilometers away. Transporting the patient carried serious risks. Three of the nurses at the hospital started praying for the intercession of Gianna and according to the patient, the pain immediately subsided. Upon examination, it was found that the fistula had completely disappeared.
(4) “Saint”. The canonization process is complete at the declaration of Sainthood. In order to be recognized as a Saint, another miracle must be attributed to the individual. Once an individual becomes a Saint, they are assigned a feast day in the Catholic Church.
-The second miracle attributed to St. Gianna concerns a baby born without amniotic fluid. Due to a large blood clot, a physician informed his patient that her pregnancy would most likely result in a spontaneous abortion. Deciding to continue with the pregnancy, she returned to the doctor at 16 weeks knowing something had gone wrong. An ultrasound showed that the membranes had broken and there was no amniotic fluid, meaning that the child and mother were in serious danger. When treatment failed, doctors predicted that the baby would die. The local Bishop was alerted to their predicament and urged them to pray through the intercession of Blessed Gianna. After many precarious months and a complicated C-section that resulted with in more complications, a healthy baby was born and the mother regained her health. St. Gianna was canonized on May 16, 2004. Her feast day is celebrated on April 28th.
Besides canonization, here are some more fun facts about Saints:
-In the Roman Catholic Church, there are over 10,000 saints.
-We do not pray to Saints, we pray with them. Remember there is a difference between asking for a Saint to pray on your behalf and praying to God.
-At Baptism, we are assigned a Patron saint and given their name, generally your first or middle name.