The process for being recognized as a saint (called “canonization“) has changed over the centuries. The basic requirements are that a person needs to be in heaven and the Church needs to decide that something about their life or death has meaning for their brothers and sisters still on earth. For the first thousand years or so, the local community would tell a potential saint’s story and ask for his or her help. If the tradition stuck, that person was a saint.
Then the popes created a centralized process to thoroughly investigate a person, basically putting them on “trial” and making their supporters prove the person’s holiness and continuing intercession. The original “Devil’s Advocate” was the church lawyer given the task of finding any argument for why a person should not be held up as a saint. If a person’s story couldn’t withstand that probing, the Church would avoid future embarrassment by not recognizing their sainthood.
Currently the Catholic church follows a deliberate process designed to allow years of reflection:
- Step 1. Becoming a “Servant of God”: At least five years after a person’s death, supporters of canonization petition a bishop to open a “cause” and present preliminary evidence of holiness
- Step 2. Becoming “Venerable”: A special commission of historians or other experts then collects evidence and interviews people (if a Servant of God lived recently). If the evidence supports it, the commission asks the Vatican to declare that this person lived a life of “heroic virtue”.
- Step 3. Becoming “Blessed” and then a “Saint”: The final step is that God needs to confirm a person’s holiness and dwelling in heaven. That means waiting for miracles. A panel of doctors or other experts need to confirm that a healing or something similar happened after a person asked for the potential saint’s intercession and that this healing has no scientific explanation. After one miracle, the Venerable Servant of God is declared Blessed; after a second, the Blessed is declared a Saint.
- Martyrs and Other Special Cases: Martyrs only need one miracle to become saints. At the end of step 2, they are declared Blessed rather than just Venerable. The pope can make exceptions to the normal rules in other cases too.