Steps on the Way to Holiness

The fame of holiness

The cause of beatification and canonization concerns a faithful Catholic who in life, in death, and after death has enjoyed the fame of holiness or martyrdom or an offering of life.

For a beatification process to begin, therefore, a certain “fame of holiness” of the person is always necessary, i.e. the common opinion of the people that his or her life was integral, rich in Christian virtues. This fame must continue and can grow. Those who have known the person speaks of the exemplary nature of his life, his positive influence, his apostolic fruitfulness, his edifying death.


Canonization is only the last step on a scale that presupposes others: in order to become officially a saint, the candidate must first be a servant of God, then venerable, then blessed.

The Catholic faithful whose cause for beatification and canonization has been initiated are called servants of God.

The specially appointed postulator collects documents and testimonies that can help reconstruct the life and holiness of the person. The first phase then begins with the official opening of the process and the candidate is defined as a Servant of God. The objective is often to verify the heroic nature of the virtues, i.e. the habitual disposition to do good with perseverance, continuity, and without hesitation. In other words, it is necessary to show that the candidate has practiced the virtues at a very high level, above the average. In other cases, the object of verification concerns the requirements of Christian martyrdom or the offering of one’s life.

Reconstruction is conducted in two ways: by listening to the oral testimonies of people who knew the Servant of God and can accurately recount facts, events, and words; by receiving documents and writings concerning the Servant of God.

If the preliminary conditions seem to agree, the Bishop can introduce the cause. The process of beatification, except for a special papal dispensation, cannot begin until at least five years have passed since the death of the candidate. The diocesan bishop appoints a tribunal made up of his Delegate, a Promoter of Justice (at the Congregational level there will then be a General Promoter of the Faith), and an actuary notary. A special Historical Commission collects all the documents concerning the Servant of God and his writings. Finally, two theological Censors must evaluate the same writings, if there is anything contrary to faith or morals. All the information is collected and then sealed during a closing session, presided over by the Bishop.


At the end of this work, the diocesan phase of the process is concluded and all the material is consigned to Rome to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints which, through a Relator, will guide the postulator in the preparation of the Positio, that is, the volume that summarises the evidence gathered in the diocese; this is the so-called Roman phase of the process.

The Positio must demonstrate with certainty the life, virtues, or martyrdom and relative fame of the Servant of God. It will be studied by a group of theologians and, in the case of a “historical cause” (one that concerns a candidate who lived a long time ago and for whom there are no eyewitnesses), also by a commission of historians. If these votes are favorable (at least a qualified majority), the dossier will be submitted to a further judgment of the Bishops and Cardinals of the Congregation.

If the judgment of the Bishops and Cardinals is equally favorable, the Holy Father can authorize the promulgation of the Decree on the heroicity of the virtues or martyrdom of the Servant of God, who thus becomes Venerable: he is recognized as having exercised to a “heroic” degree the Christian virtues (theological: faith, hope, and charity; cardinal: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance; others: poverty, chastity, obedience, humility, etc.), or as having suffered a true and proper death. ), or to have suffered real martyrdom or to have offered their life according to the requirements of the Dicastery.

In fact, the candidates for sainthood can be martyrs, those who have accepted in a Christian manner killing in hate of the faith; the so-called confessors, those who have been witnesses to the faith, but without the supreme sacrifice of their lives. Moreover, since 2017, it has also been possible to achieve canonization through a third way: the offering of one’s life, without killing in hatred of the faith and without the prolonged exercise of heroic virtues; these are people who have voluntarily and freely offered their lives for others, persevering “until death in this regard, in a supreme act of charity”.


Beatification is the intermediate step towards canonization. If the candidate is declared a martyr, he or she immediately becomes Blessed, otherwise, a miracle must be recognized, due to his or her intercession. This miraculous event is generally healing that is considered scientifically inexplicable, judged as such by a medical commission convened by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and composed of specialists, both believers, and non-believers. What is important for recognition is that the healing is complete and lasting, in many cases even rapidly.

After this approval, the Bishops and Cardinals of the Congregation also pronounce on the miracle, and the Holy Father authorizes the relevant decree. Thus, the Venerable can be beatified. Following this proclamation, the Blessed is inscribed in the liturgical calendar of his diocese or religious family, on the anniversary of his death or on a day considered particularly significant.


In order to achieve canonization, i.e. to be declared a saint, the Blessed person must be attributed the efficacious intercession of a second miracle, which occurred after beatification.

In order to establish who is a saint, therefore, the Church always uses a canonical ascertainment: if once one could become a saint simply by popular acclamation, now for several centuries the Church has begun to adopt specific rules to avoid confusion and abuse.

As in all processes, there is a kind of accusation and defence. The defence lawyer, if we want to use this term, is the postulator, who is in charge of demonstrating the holiness of the candidate. The one who is in charge of ‘cleaning up’ testimonies and documents is instead the promoter of the faith (commonly known as the ‘devil’s advocate’). The former is appointed by the person who has made the proposal to instruct the cause, the latter is employed by the Congregation.

Particular cases

There are cases that proceed by equivalence, applied both to cases of beatification and canonization; this is a procedure by which the Pope, after due verification, approves a cult that has existed for some time, without waiting for a miracle to be recognized. It differs from formal beatifications and canonizations, for which the Church provides for a regular process and the respective miracle.

Moreover, the Pope can always make particular decisions. Pope Francis did so with regard to John XXIII, who became a saint due to his reputation for sanctity, which had been spread all over the world for decades, without a second miracle being granted to him. An extraordinary procedure was also followed by Benedict XVI with regard to St. John Paul II, whose cause for canonization was opened a few weeks after his death, without waiting the required five years.