Canonization is the act by which the Catholic Church and Anglican Communion declare that a person who has died was a saint, upon which declaration the person is included in the canon, or list, of recognized saints. Originally, people were recognized as saints without any formal process. Later, different processes, such as those used today in the Eastern Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church, were developed.
The first people honored as saints were the martyrs. Pious legends of their deaths were considered to affirm the truth of their faith in Christ.
The Roman Rite's Canon of the Mass contains the names only of martyrs, along with that of the Virgin Mary and, since 1962, that of Saint Joseph.
By the fourth century, however, "confessors"—people who had confessed their faith not by dying but by word and life—began to be venerated publicly. Examples of such people are Saint Hilarion and Saint Ephrem the Syrian in the East, and Saint Martin of Tours and Saint Hilary of Poitiers in the West. Their names were inserted in the diptychs, the lists of saints explicitly venerated in the liturgy, and their tombs were honoured in like manner as those of the martyrs. Since the witness of their lives was not as unequivocal as that of the martyrs, they were venerated publicly only with the approval by the local bishop. This process is often referred to as "local canonization".
This approval was required even for veneration of a reputed martyr. In his history of the Donatist heresy, Saint Optatus recounts that at Carthage a Catholic matron, named Lucilla, incurred the censures of the Church for having kissed the relics of a reputed martyr whose claims to martyrdom had not been juridically proved. And Saint Cyprian (died 258) recommended that the utmost diligence be observed in investigating the claims of those who were said to have died for the faith. All the circumstances accompanying the martyrdom were to be inquired into; the faith of those who suffered, and the motives that animated them were to be rigorously examined, in order to prevent the recognition of undeserving persons. Evidence was sought from the court records of the trials or from people who had been present at the trials.
Saint Augustine of Hippo (died 430) tells of the procedure which was followed in his day for the recognition of a martyr. The bishop of the diocese in which the martyrdom took place set up a canonical process for conducting the inquiry with the utmost severity. The acts of the process were sent either to the metropolitan or primate, who carefully examined the cause, and, after consultation with the suffragan bishops, declared whether the deceased was worthy of the name of 'martyr' and public veneration.
Acts of formal recognition, such as the erection of an altar over the saint's tomb or transferring the saint's relics to a church, were preceded by formal inquiries into the sanctity of the person's life and the miracles attributed to that person's intercession.
Such acts of recognition of a saint were authoritative, in the strict sense, only for the diocese or ecclesiastical province for which they were issued, but with the spread of the fame of a saint, were often accepted elsewhere also.
In the Catholic Church (both Latin and Eastern Churches), the act of canonization is reserved to the Holy See and occurs at the conclusion of a long process requiring extensive proof that the person proposed for canonization lived and died in such an exemplary and holy way that he or she is worthy to be recognized as a saint. The Church's official recognition of sanctity implies that the persons are now in heavenly glory, that they may be publicly invoked and mentioned officially in the liturgy of the Church, most especially in the Litany of the Saints. Other churches still follow the older practice (see, for instance, below on the practice of the Orthodox Church).
In the Catholic Church, canonization involves a decree that allows veneration of the saint in the liturgy of the Roman Rite throughout the world. For permission to venerate on a local level, only beatification is needed, not canonization.
In the Medieval West, the Holy See was asked to intervene in the question of canonizations, so as to ensure a more authoritative decision. The canonization of Saint Udalric, Bishop of Augsburg, by Pope John XV in 993 is the first undoubted example of a papal canonization of a saint from outside Rome; some historians maintain that the first such canonization was that of Saint Swibert by Pope Leo III in 804.
Thereafter, recourse to the judgment of the popes was had with greater frequency. Walter of Pontoise was canonized by Hugh de Boves, the Archbishop of Rouen in 1153; Walter was the last saint in Western Europe to have been canonized by an authority other than the pope. "The last case of canonization by a metropolitan is said to have been that of St. Gaultier, or Gaucher, abbot of Pontoise, by the Archbishop of Rouen. A decree of Pope Alexander III, 1170, gave the prerogative to the pope thenceforth, so far as the Western Church was concerned."
In 1173, after reprimanding certain bishops for having permitted veneration of a man who was far from holy, Alexander III decreed: "You shall not therefore presume to honor him in the future; for, even if miracles were worked through him, it is not lawful for you to venerate him as a saint without the authority of the Catholic Church."
The procedure initiated by the text of Alexander III, confirmed by a bull of Pope Innocent III in the year 1200, issued on the occasion of the canonization of Saint Cunegunde, led to increasingly elaborate inquiries.
In his De Servorum Dei beatifιcatione et de Beatorum canonizatione, the eminent canonist Prospero Lambertini (1675–1758), who later became Pope Benedict XIV, elaborated upon the procedural norms issued by Pope Urban VIII (1623–1644) and the actual established practice. From his time until the 20th century proceedings were governed by his five-volume work published in 1734–1738. Its substance was incorporated into the Code of Canon Law of 1917. The article Beatification and canonization process in 1914 describes the procedures followed immediately before the publication of that Code.
Pope John Paul II's apostolic constitution Divinus Perfectionis Magister of 25 January 1983, and the norms issued by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints on 7 February 1983, for its implementation on diocesan level, continued the work of simplification already initiated by Pope Paul VI. Contrary to popular belief, the reforms did not eliminate the office of the Promoter of the Faith (Latin: promotor fidei), popularly known as the Devil's advocate, whose duty was to question the material presented in favor of canonization. The reforms were intended to make the process less adversarial. In November 2012 Pope Benedict XVI appointed Monsignor Carmello Pellegrino to the office of Promoter of the Faith.
Candidates go through the following steps on the way to being declared saints:
"Servant of God": The process leading towards canonization begins at the diocesan level. A bishop with jurisdiction—usually the bishop of the place where the candidate died or is buried, although another ordinary can be given this authority—gives permission to open an investigation into the virtues of the individual, responding to a petition by members of the faithful, either actually or pro forma. This investigation usually opens no sooner than five years after the death of the person being investigated. The pope, as Bishop of Rome, may open a process and has the authority to waive the five-year waiting period, as was done for Mother Teresa by Pope John Paul II, and for Lúcia Santos and for John Paul II himself by Pope Benedict XVI. Normally, a guild or organization to promote the cause of the candidate's sainthood is created, an exhaustive search of the candidate's writings, speeches and sermons is undertaken, a detailed biography is written and eyewitness accounts are gathered. When sufficient information has been gathered, the investigation of the candidate, who is called "Servant of God", is presented by the local bishop to the Roman Curia—in particular, the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints—where it is assigned a postulator, whose task is to gather further information about the life of the Servant of God. Religious orders who regularly deal with the congregation often have their own designated postulator generals. At some point, permission is then granted for the body of the Servant of God to be exhumed and examined. A certification ("non cultus") is made that no superstitious or heretical worship or improper cult has grown up around the servant or his or her tomb, and relics are taken.
"Venerable/Heroic in Virtue": When enough information has been gathered, the congregation will recommend to the pope that he make a proclamation of the Servant of God's heroic virtue (that is, that the servant exhibited the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, to a heroic degree). From this point the one said to be "heroic in virtue" is referred to by the title "Venerable". A Venerable has as yet no feast day, no churches may be built in his or her honor, and the church has made no statement on the person's probable or certain presence in heaven, but prayer cards and other materials may be printed to encourage the faithful to pray for a miracle wrought by his or her intercession as a sign of God's will that the person be canonized.
"Blessed": Beatification is a statement by the church that it is "worthy of belief" that the person is in heaven, having come to salvation. This step depends on whether the Venerable is a martyr or a "confessor".
This allows beatification, giving the venerable the new title "Blessed" (abbreviated "Bl.") or, in Latin, Beatus or Beata. A feast day will be designated, but its observance is normally restricted to the Blessed's home diocese, to certain locations associated with him or her, and/or to the churches or houses of the blessed's religious order, if he or she belonged to one. Parishes may not normally be named in honor of a Blessed.
"Saint" (contracted "St" or "S."): To be canonized a saint, at least two miracles normally must have been performed through the saint's intercession after his or her death, for potential saints who were not declared martyrs- in which case only one miracle is needed (i.e., normally an additional miracle after that granting beatification). Canonization is a statement by the church that the person certainly enjoys the Beatific Vision. The saint is assigned a feast day which may be celebrated anywhere within the Catholic Church, although it may or may not appear on the general calendar or local calendars as an obligatory feast, parish churches may be built in his or her honor, and the faithful may freely and without restriction celebrate and honor the saint.
In the case of the Eastern Catholic Churches, individual churches sui juris retain, in theory, the right to glorify saints for their own jurisdictions, though this has rarely happened in practice.
Although a recognition of sainthood by the Pope does not directly concern a fact of divine revelation, it must still be "definitively held" by the faithful as infallible under (at the very least) the Universal Magisterium of the Church since it is a truth connected to revelation by historical necessity.
Popes have several times extended to the whole Church, without carrying out the ordinary judicial process of canonization described above, the veneration as a saint, the "cultus", of someone long venerated as such locally. This action by a Pope is known as equipollent (or equivalent) canonization or "confirmation of cultus". According to the rules laid down by Pope Benedict XIV, there are three conditions for such a canonization: an ancient cultus, a general constant attestation by trustworthy historians to the virtues or martyrdom of the person, and an uninterrupted fame as a worker of miracles.
Pope Benedict XIV himself gave as examples the equipollent canonizations of the saints Romuald in 1595, Norbert in 1621, Bruno in 1623, Peter Nolasco in 1655, Raymond Nonnatus in 1681, Stephen of Hungary in 1686, Margaret of Scotland in 1691, John of Matha and Felix of Valois in 1694, Pope Gregory VII in 1728, Wenceslaus of Bohemia in 1729, and Gertrude of Helfta in 1738. Later equipollent canonizations include those of Peter Damian and Boniface in 1828, Cyril and Methodius in 1880, Ephrem the Syrian in 1920, Albert the Great in 1931, Margaret of Hungary in 1943, John of Ávila and Nikola Tavelić and his three companion martyrs in 1970, Marko Krizin, István Pongrácz and Melchior Grodziecki in 1995, and Hildegard of Bingen in 2012.
Pope Francis added Angela of Foligno and Peter Faber in 2013, and José de Anchieta, Marie of the Incarnation, and Francis-Xavier de Montmorency-Laval in 2014.
Very rarely, Popes may waive the requirement for a second miracle after beatification if he and the Sacred College of Cardinals and the Congregation for Saints Causes all agree that the virtuous blessed person lived a life of extreme merit because of certain actions, as was the case with Pope Francis's canonization of Pope Saint John XXIII, who convoked the first portion of the Second Vatican Council before his death in 1963.
For the process by which the Orthodox Church grants official recognition to someone as a saint, see glorification.
The Church of England, the Mother Church of the Anglican Communion, canonized Charles I as a saint, in the Convocations of Canterbury and York of 1660.