What Happens at a Canonization?

One of the happiest days in the life of the Church is the proclamation of new saints.

The celebration of the proclamation, of course, is the final moment of a long process of investigation, scrutiny and prayer that can last years and even many decades. But what actually takes place at a canonization?

What is a canonization?

relics
The relics of Maria Guadalupe Garcia Zavala are carried forward during her canonization.CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters

A canonization is a statement by the Church that a person certainly enjoys the Beatific Vision — in other words, that particular someone is in heaven. There is a common misunderstanding that the Church somehow “creates” or “makes” saints. Through the process of beatification and canonization, a deceased member of the Church is granted definitive recognition of his or her heroic sanctity.

The word canonization means quite literally that, in canonizing a person, the pope speaks infallibly and for the whole Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that the person’s name should be entered in the canon of the saints, listing all who are to receive veneration universally in the Church. Canonization is an earthly decision, which means that it has nothing to do with the actual entry of a saint into heaven.

Liturgical law definitely determines the acts of public cult by which a canonized saint may receive veneration. Specifically, the saints may be invoked in the public and official prayers of the Church offered for them; churches may be built in their honor; altars dedicated in their honor; the Mass celebrated; the Divine Office recited; a feast day set aside to their memory; and they may be designated as special patrons.

The formal declaration is made by the pope at a ceremony, celebrated with a Mass, called the Rite of Canonization.

Why is there a process first?

No saint shall be named without the laborious and highly regulated process of canonization. The steps by which a person becomes a saint are carefully executed by the Church and follow a meticulous investigation. This scrutiny is called the process of canonization. It is an ancient custom and has undergone many changes and reforms through the centuries. Today, it begins on the local level, with the approval of the Holy See, and includes a careful study of the candidate’s life and writings and ends with the recognition of miracles. The validation of miracles is customarily necessary for beatification and then canonization.

What is the rite of canonization?

Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI prays as he celebrates a canonization Mass of three new saints in St. Peter’s Square. CNS photo/Paul Haring

The canonization rite takes place in the wider setting of a Papal Mass. This is important as it means that the proclamation of a new saint or saints is still within the setting of the celebration of the Eucharist, the source and summit of the Christian life.

The first part of the rite begins with prayers and hymns and proceeds with the chanting of the Litany of Saints, the long and beautiful roll call of the Church’s saints.

Each name is recited, followed by the refrain “Ora pro nobis” (“Pray for us”). The pope then processes to the altar and the rite continues with the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (the Vatican office in charge of the investigations) making three petitions to the pope to proclaim the blessed or blesseds among the saints. In the rite for a beatification, there is only one petition, and the three petitions are used to emphasize the great significance of the canonization.

What are the petitions?

The prefect for the Congregation of the Causes of Saints makes three petitions to the pope asking him to enroll the blessed or blesseds among the saints.

First Petition

“Most Holy Father,

“Holy Mother Church earnestly beseeches Your Holiness to enroll Blessed ______ among the Saints, that they may be invoked as such by all the Christian faithful.”

Second Petition

“Most Holy Father,

“Strengthened by unanimous prayer, Holy Church more earnestly beseeches Your Holiness to enroll these, her children, among the Saints.”

Third Petition

“Most Holy Father,

“Holy Church, trusting in the Lord’s promise to send upon her the Spirit of Truth, who in every age keeps the supreme Magisterium immune from error, most earnestly beseeches Your Holiness to enroll these, her elect, among the Saints.”

At what point or words during the canonization Mass do the saints become officially declared?

The pope responds to the three petitions by pronouncing the canonization formula: “For the honor of the Blessed Trinity, the exaltation of the Catholic faith and the increase of the Christian life, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and our own, after due deliberation and frequent prayer for divine assistance, and having sought the counsel of many of our brother bishops, we declare and define Blessed __________ be a saint and we enroll him (or her) among the saints, decreeing that he (or she) is to be venerated as such by the whole Church. In the name of the Holy Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

With the canonization formula, the pope has officially declared the new saints. The canonization formula is an irrevocable decree issued by the pope prescribing universal veneration. The act removes all doubt about the validity of honoring the saint.

Why are the relics of the saints presented during the canonization for veneration?

St Damien
A tapestry showing St. Damien de Veuster hangs from the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica during his canonization. CNS photo/Paul Haring

With the completion of the Rite of Canonization, the relics of the new saint or saints are brought forward. They are incensed and presented to the faithful for veneration. This moment tells the faithful that they are now permitted to venerate the relics of the new saints universally, in keeping with the tradition in the Church. As the Second Vatican Council taught in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium): “The saints have been traditionally honored in the Church and their authentic relics and images held in veneration” (No. 111).

The presentation of the relics is also the last part of the canonization rite. The prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints then thanks the pope and asks that an apostolic letter — an official document attesting to the canonization — be drawn up. The pope responds, “Decernimus” (“We so decree”). The canonization rite ends with the singing of the Gloria, and the Mass proceeds as usual.

Are there special Mass readings for the canonization?

No. During the Liturgy of the Word for the Mass, the readings for the Sunday are used. For example, at the canonization of Popes St. John XXIII and John Paul II on April 27, 2014, celebrated by Pope Francis, the readings for Divine Mercy Sunday were used. The pope also reflects on the readings in his homily.

Can anyone attend the canonization?

Pope Francis
Pope Francis arrives to celebrate a May 12, 2013, canonization Mass. CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters

Yes. In fact, literally hundreds of thousands of pilgrims travel to attend canonizations. Often, entry into St. Peter’s Square or St. Peter’s Basilica (depending on the weather or the health of the pontiff) requires a ticket. Pope Francis gave instruction that with the exception of diplomats and other officials attending the canonizations of John Paul II and John XXIII, there should be no tickets, and that entry would be for all.

Is there a special day or particular calendar day on which canonizations must occur?

No. The choice for when a canonization is held is subject to the liturgical calendar. Typically, canonizations are held in the fall and the spring. For example, most of the canonizations in the pontificate of Pope John Paul II were held between April and June or in October and November. Popes will also often choose a date that has special connection to the blessed being canonized. For example, Pope John Paul II canonized St. Faustina Kowalska on Divine Mercy Sunday 2000. Pope Francis then canonized John Paul II on Divine Mercy Sunday 2014.

How many saints are canonized at one time? Is there a maximum?

There is no limit to the number of saints who can be canonized at the same time. Customarily, to assist with the costs of the canonizations (that are paid by the originating dioceses or religious communities), several canonizations are held at the same time. The largest canonization at one time was held on May 12, 2013, when Pope Francis canonized Laura Montoya Upegui (1874-1949), María Guadalupe García Zavala (1878-1963) and the 800 Martyrs of Otranto who were slain in 1480.

Are servants of God and blesseds also announced during a canonization Mass?

Usually, no. The designation of the title of Servant of God is granted after the Congregation for the Causes of Saints completes a preliminary investigation into a candidate and gives permission for a cause to be started. Blesseds are officially beatified in a separate ceremony.

What is an equivalent canonization?
Aside from the public proclamation of a saint by the pope, there is another type of canonization called an “equivalent canonization” (or “equipollent canonization”) in which the pope grants permission for the universal Church to observe the veneration of a servant of God or blessed who has not yet been canonized. Established in 1632 by Pope Urban VIII, an equivalent canonization does not mean that the pope is bypassing the process of canonization or introducing some new cause for canonization. The pope instead acts in recognition of a cause that is long-standing and of someone who is already held in great esteem by the faithful and enjoys fame for miraculous intercessions. For whatever reason, the cause of canonization was never completed. No formal canonization is needed, and the pope only needs to sign a decree to make it official.