The Canonization Process

There are numerous people who believe in the holiness of Joseph Dutton and would like to see him canonized. Canonization is the infallible declaration by the Holy Father that an individual is in Heaven. The Joseph Dutton Guild has as its main goal to become the official sponsor (“Petitioner”) of a potential Church cause for the possible beatification and canonization of Joseph Dutton.

There are six main stages of the process for someone to declared a Saint by the Catholic Church. See below for an explanation of each stage. Right now we are at Stage One.


Stage One: Sponsorship
Stage Two: The Diocesan Preliminary Phase
Stage Three: The Diocesan Phase
Stage Four: The Initial Roman Phase
Stage Five: Beatification
Stage Six: Canonization
Stage One: Sponsorship

An individual or organization strongly believes that a deceased Catholic is a saint in Heaven and would like the Church to examine that person’s life with a view to possible canonization.  Canonization is an infallible declaration of the Pope that someone is in Heaven.  Canonization doesn’t “make a saint”, that is, it doesn’t “place a person in Heaven”.  Rather, it is an official verification by the Church that a person “is already in Heaven”.

To ensure that a person is truly in Heaven and can be held up as a model of holiness for others, the Church requires a thorough study of that person’s life.  The Church looks for three things:

1) The person had a reputation for holiness in life.  Canonized saints are supposed to be role models to imitate.  It’s not enough for the decedent to be “good”.  For certitude that a person is actually in Heaven (and not, say, in purgatory) the Church will need proof that he/she must either have consistently practiced “heroic virtue” for a reasonable length of time before they passed or they died as a martyr.  

2)  The individual must be an ongoing inspiration to a reasonable number of Catholics to the point where they privately invoke his/her intercession for favors and miracles.  A canonized saint is not only someone who is holy and a role model, but someone who inspires confidence that they are good intercessors before the throne of God for their brothers and sisters in Christ.  God listens to His friends, and those He wishes to be recognized and honored in the Church will be an effective intercessor.  

3)  Because the act of declaring a person to be definitively in Heaven is an infallible statement (it cannot be wrong), the Popes generally require two miracles (usually cures) that are scientifically inexplicable and serious, which are the result of that person’s sole intercession.  An example of a miracle would be someone at the point of death from a cancerous tumor being instantly and completely healed without medical intervention.  Visible, verifiable miracles are required because only God can do a miracle and He chooses to perform some miracles when asked by certain saints.  

The process for a canonization is lengthy and involves a lot of experts because the Church takes it very seriously.  For this reason, a potential canonization “cause” needs sponsorship.  A person or group or organization needs to step forward and financially sponsor the process, which can resemble a court case (proving that someone is a saint).  The person or group should be able to reasonably guarantee the funding necessary for a potential cause to be completed.  This process can take many years, even centuries long, and can be quite costly.  People who work on the cause (case) need to be justly recompensed.  Costs include staff of the sponsor, travel to find proof of holiness or martyrdom, staff of the Diocese and/or Holy See involved in the cause, medical experts, notaries, historians, theologians, etc.

The sponsor will need to accomplish two things before a formal cause (case) is opened by the Church.  First, the sponsor must show that they can afford to pay for the process (depending on how complex the cause is, it can take hundreds of thousands of dollars or more) or that they have reasonable belief in being able to raise the funds as needed.  E.g.  A multi-millionaire might be able to put aside money in a trust for this purpose or a foundation or diocese or religious order might be able to show financial stability and give reasonable projections for the ability to handle the funding for the length of the cause.

Second, the sponsor must gather all the relevant evidence about the deceased that will be needed for a potential cause,  This stage can take years because information about the deeds and writings of/about the candidate, evidence about his/her sanctity and popular devotion, reports of any potential miracles and contact information for possible eye-witnesses must be gathered.  With a candidate such as Joseph Dutton, this can be time-consuming as he was a voluminous writer, and documents by/about him are kept in collections and archives all over the United States and elsewhere.  

Once the initial information-gathering has been completed, the sponsor must have an expert or team of experts evaluate what has been collected to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to give reasonable hope that the candidate can be canonized.  Sometimes the process ends at this stage.  For example, someone might be very holy, but no one really knew about that person and so people aren’t inspired to ask for that person’s intercession.  Or, critical information is missing.  A famous example of this is the case of Thomas a’ Kempis.  He wrote the Imitation of Christ, and was known to live a holy, inspiring life.  However, when they examined his grave, they discovered that he had accidentally been buried alive.  Thus, it is impossible to know whether he died as a saint.  He could have died with bitterness or hatred to those who buried him alive or could have forgiven their mistake…  We simply do not know.  For this reason, although he may well be in Heaven, nobody can bring forth proof that he had a holy death and so he cannot be canonized.

If the experts believe that there is enough evidence for a cause to be opened, the sponsor will designate an expert to write up a formal petition for the diocese to open up a formal cause for canonization.This is a legal proceeding in the Church, so one can liken it to a “case”.  If the “case” is accepted by the Diocese, the sponsor is called the “Petitioner”.  The expert (usually a canon lawyer) is called the “Postulator”.  The Postulator doesn’t represent the Petitioner but the candidate for canonization on behalf of the Petitioner.   The long brief and evidence is called the “Petition”.  Submitting the Petition to the Diocese is like “filing a lawsuit” for with the purpose of the Church recognizing the candidate as a saint.  It is up to the Diocese to determine whether the Petition meets the requirements for starting a Cause for canonization.  Technically speaking, the sponsor is not a “Petitioner” and the expert is not the “Postulator” until and unless the “Petition” has been officially accepted  by the Diocese.

Stage Two: The Diocesan Preliminary Phase

Before a Petition may be accepted, the diocesan bishop must first consult with the bishops of his area to see whether it is prudent and fitting to open a Cause.  He must also request a “nihil obstat” from the Holy See from the Congregation of the Causes of Saints.  A “nihil obstat” is certification from the Vatican that the bishop is free to proceed with the process because there is nothing serious that they are aware of that would prevent the cause from being opened.  The bishop must ensure that the Petition satisfies all legal requirements and that the Petitioner is reasonably able to sustain all expenses involved in the Case.

Stage Three: The Diocesan Phase

When the Bishop officially accepts the Petition, the Cause is formally opened.  The candidate may now be called “Servant of God”.  The bishop appoints officials of the Tribunal and appoints experts to work on the Cause.  The role of the Tribunal is to interview witnesses, obtain, examine and weigh the evidence, and possibly look into alleged miracles. Experts working under the bishop have a lot of work at this stage. Some will have to examine and establish the provenance of documents and other evidence.  Historians often have a large role in giving insight to the circumstances of the Servant of God and assist in relevant research.  A team of theologians are assembled to examine the authenticated published and unpublished writings of the candidate to determine whether they are theologically sound and to give their opinion to the bishop.  The Postulator does what is needed to finance this activity, to bring forth witnesses, respond to legal difficulties that may arise, alert the diocese to potential miracles or problems, etc. 

This phase can be lengthy.  If all goes well, the bishop will send the case with all the evidence on to the Holy See.  Note that the bishop’s role is to provide the information to the Holy See.  

Stage Four: The Initial Roman Phase

It is at this step that the process takes on a more formal appearance of a court case.  The department of the Holy See that oversees this process is called the Congregation fo the Causes of Saints.  It will assign a team of clergy and experts to review the life and writings of the Servant of God and other evidence in greater depth.  This often involves gathering more evidence.  The role of the Postulator is to continue to act on behalf of the Petitioner (sponsor) to advocate the cause of the candidate.  The first thing that the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints will have to decide after it finishes its initial examination of the cause, is whether it believes there is sufficient evidence of martyrdom or of the practice of heroic virtue on the part of the Servant of God. If so, it will recommend that this be officially recognized by the Pope.  Should the Holy Father accept this recommendation, he will give the Servant of God the new title of “Venerable”.  

Stage Five: Beatification

Once the fact of the practice of heroic virtue or of martyrdom has been established, the next step in the process is for a miracle due to the intercession of the Venerable to be proved.  Again, this takes much research and the help of many experts.  There is no set time frame for this stage. 

Sometimes it can take centuries before a provable miracle occurs.  That is, some favors or miracles cannot be proved even if they exist.  For example, someone may be given the grace of interior conversion and repentance, as the result of an outpouring of grace.  But this can’t be externally proven.  This is why the Church only accepts medical miracles which occur after the death of the candidate to prove the miraculous intercession of the Venerable candidate. 

If a miracle is proven, the Pope may order the person to be liturgically honored and venerated.  He does this in a “beatification” ceremony in which the person is recognized as holy and in which public liturgical veneration may be given.  The candidate is now given the title of “Blessed”.  Note:  No miracle is needed for the beatification of a martyr.  It is considered heroic in and of itself to die as a martyr. 

Stage Six: Canonization

Another miracle is required as a result of the intercession of the Blessed for canonization to occur.  This new miracle must take place after the beatification ceremony and, once more, must be proven.  Once a miracle has been approved, the Pope may decide to canonize the Blessed.  Papal canonization is the infallible declaration of the Pope that the person is a saint, and is definitively in Heaven.  It also permits and requires the public veneration throughout the world of the Saint.  

Canonizations may be delayed because it may take years, decades, or even centuries for a proven miracle to occur.  Or, it can be delayed because a canonization may not be prudent in a particular era. 

The purposes of a canonization are to give honor and glory to God in the recognition and celebration of a person who is a Saint, to indicate a powerful intercessor before God, and to give a resplendant model of a faithful, virtuous person to the rest of the faithful to imitate.  A saint is proof of God’s holiness, goodness, kindness, and power, known for the strong practice of a particular virtue.