Historical Sketch of Canonization

In every age of the world's history there have been some men who, being endowed with extraordinary natural gifts, have risen to great heights above their fellowmen. And those whose singular endowments are proclaimed by the general voice have their names preserved in the grateful recollections of posterity. It would seem to be an instinct of human nature to pay honor to those who are distinguished, and in ancient heathendom, this tendency was carried to such lengths that even religious honor was sometimes rendered to the illustrious dead.

The "divinity that doth hedge round a king" was an idea that sprang from the prevalence of this usage. Readers of Livy or of Plutarch will remember that amongst the Romans sacrifices were offered to Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome. And the apotheosis of Romulus was but the prelude to the deification of Caesar and the Emperor Augustus. As still further illustrating the same tendency, it is worthy of note as a significant historical fact that the Emperor Tiberius Caesar endeavored to obtain the consent of the Roman Senate for the deification of Christ; but the Senate refused to consent, chiefly for the reason that the privilege claimed of decreeing apotheosis was anticipated by the general verdict of humanity proclaiming that the risen Savior was truly God.1

The educated classes in China to this day pay religious honor to the philosopher Confucius, and the worship of ancestors is the principal portion of the popular religion. The customs which still exist among many Indian tribes bear witness to the same impulse. Amongst Christian nations, the numerous monuments in Westminster Abbey and in Notre Dame - to name two of the more prominent places - show how universal is the desire to cherish the memory of the great.

The Catholic Church, guided as she is by the Spirit of God, who knows our nature, encourages, nay even commands, us to distinguish with singular honor those of her children whose sanctity and virtues have reached a pre-eminent degree. And to prevent deception, she has established a most careful and deliberate form of procedure to investigate statements of fact and ascertain the moral value of actions.

Having regard to the wide prevalence of apotheosis amongst heathen nations it might be expected that the enemies of the Church would assert that the canonization of saints is a mere imitation of this heathen practice. This they have accordingly done, declaring that the canonization of saints corresponds with the apotheosis of the heathens, and that canonization derives its origin from this ancient pagan custom.

But this calumny is easily answered. The canonization of saints and the apotheosis of the heathen are poles apart, and canonization is founded not on any practice existing among the Gentiles, but on the solid basis of Divine revelation. In apotheosis the person who is honored actually takes rank amongst the heathen deities and becomes one of them; but the canonized saint is placed amongst the servants and friends of God. "With us," says St. Augustine, "the martyrs are not gods, for the One true God is our God and the God of the martyrs." Further, it is certain that divine honors were paid in ancient Rome and other countries not merely to the emperors, but to their wives and to other women who were blood-relations of the emperor. The testimony of historians and the inscriptions on marble tablets and coins leave no doubt on this point. And the only claim to religious honor possessed by these deified women was the mere relationship to the head of the empire.

Not only then is the canonization of saints essentially different from the apotheosis of the heathens, but it is equally true that the custom of canonizing servants of God can in no way be traced to the superstitious deification of the Gentiles. Canonization derives its origin from revealed Catholic doctrine on the invocation of saints and the honor due to them; and the custom of paying religious honor to holy men and seeking their intercession is plainly asserted in the Old Testament. In the fifth chapter of the book of Josue we read: "When Josue was in the city of Jericho he lifted up his eyes, and saw a man standing over against him, holding a drawn sword, and he went to him and said: Art thou one of ours or one of our adversaries? And he answered: No, but I am a prince of the host of the Lord, and now I am come. Josue fell on his face to the ground, worshipping said: What saith my Lord to His servant?" And in the second chapter of the Fourth Book of Kings we are told that when the sons of the Prophets saw the spirit of Elias had rested on Eliseus, "coming to meet him they worshipped him, falling to the ground." It matters not that these texts refer to men who were still on earth; for if holiness in living men was deserving of worship, much more was this honor due to that holiness which was crowned with immortal glory in heaven.

Furthermore, St. Paul calls Moses a "mediator," and this is his common title in Talmudic writers. And beyond all doubt the later Talmudists believed in the merits and intercession of the saints of Israel. There is no ground for the statement that the canonization of saints is of pagan origin. No such accusation was made in the early ages of the Church; but, then, as now, Catholics were charged with idolatry for honoring the saints. Such charges were made by the heathens generally, and in particular by Julian the Apostate, by the Manicheans and others. From all this it follows that the canonization of saints is not founded upon any pagan practice of apotheosis, and if we go back before the coming of our Savior we find the custom
of venerating holy men, and invoking their aid, existing under the Old Law and sanctioned by Divine Revelation.

Canonization and the veneration of saints are as old as the Church. But in the earlier ages formal sentence of canonization was not regularly pronounced by appointed judges after a prolonged judicial inquiry much less was the right of judgment reserved exclusively to the Holy See.

The bishop of a diocese possessed the right to authorize that religious honor be paid to the saints within the limits of the diocese committed to his care. And it often happened that the faithful began and continued to pay homage to a saint without any intervention of episcopal authority. Nor was there much danger of abuse arising from this unauthorized veneration. The Church in these early days was a "little flock," and the saints honored were exclusively martyrs who were publicly sentenced to death by the judges because they refused to deny the faith. It was but natural that their surviving brethren should pay them homage, piously visiting their last resting-places, decorating their tombs, celebrating the anniversary of their precious death, and begging their intercession with Almighty God. Ecclesiastical authority approved and encouraged this devotion, recognizing in the action of the faithful a remote application of the principle, "Vox populi vox Dei." At the same time the Church was not blind to the danger of error and abuse. To her is given the custody of the "deposit of faith," and, since God desires us to honor the saints, He gives the Church the right to test their sanctity. As early as the fourth century we find an example of her interposition and guidance. St. Optatus, in his history of the Donatist heresy, tells us that at Carthage a Christian 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. In times of persecution, when imaginations are stirred and hearts are on fire, the Church has need of firmness to guard the purity of her liturgy and public worship against intemperate piety and zeal. The phrase "Vindicare martyrem" comes into current use at this period, and means that religious honor was not to be rendered to a reputed martyr unless it was declared legitimate by the Church.

In tracing the history of canonization the one point that comes out most clearly is the care and prudence exercised by the Church in testing the holiness of the saints and regulating the cultus to be paid to them. St. Cyprian (died 258) recommends that the utmost diligence be observed in investigating the claims of those who are 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. We gather from his letters that the utmost caution was employed to prevent the recognition of undeserving persons.

When the Christians of those days, who were bound together by the closest ties of religion, found one of their number cast into prison or brought before the civil tribunal on account of the faith, they watched the proceedings with the liveliest interest. Mingling with the pagans without being recognized as Christians, they attended the trial even at the risk of their lives, and, having collected the questions and answers with scrupulous care, they committed them to writing on returning to their homes. Later on they were present at the place of execution, where they saw the last deeds and heard the dying words of the martyr. They thus became valuable witnesses as to the nature of his sacrifice and his claims to the honor of canonization.

In the absence of such witnesses as these, there was another source from which authentic testimony was frequently obtained. The clerks of the law courts were approached, and leave was purchased, often at a very high figure, to take a copy of the records of the trial. The evidence, obtained from fellow-Christians or faithfully recorded by the public notaries, indicates the holy enthusiasm of the martyrs. Immediate entrance to the joys of heaven was the reward of their perseverance and so vivid was their faith that they seemed, like St. Stephen, to see whilst still living the radiance of Divine Glory. The most frightful tortures had no terror for them; they tore down imperial edicts, and flung back in the most fearless manner the taunts of their heathen judges. Thus, when Maximus, the Roman governor of Silicia, had ordered the eyes of St. Probus to be gouged out he said to his victim: "Thou continuest still to argue, but thou art condemned to eternal darkness." And the Saint replied: "Did you know the darkness in which your soul is plunged, you would see yourself much more miserable than I am." At another stage the governor said: "Heat bars of fire and apply them to his feet"; to which the Saint replied: "This fire is without heat; at least I feel none"; and when he ordered him to be scourged till his shoulders were flayed the martyr simply said: "All this does me no harm; invent something new, and you will see the power of God who strengthens me."2

Records like these, preserved as they have been in large numbers by the Roman Government, the bitter enemy of Christianity, afford the most ample proof that the courage which animated the martyrs was inspired from on high. But whether the acts of the martyrs were obtained from the public records, or gathered from the evidence of private individuals, they were always submitted for examination to the bishop of the diocese in which the saint had suffered death.

St. Augustine(died 430) tells of the procedure which obtained 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 defunct was worthy of the name of martyr and the honor of public worship.

It is well known that in the early Christian centuries martyrs were the only saints for whom religious honor was authorized by the Church, and martyrs only (with the Blessed Virgin Mary) are mentioned in the Canon of the Roman Mass. When the era of the martyrs came to a close in the Roman world special honor began to be paid to "Confessors" - to use the term which is consecrated by usage. In the earliest times this name was applied to persons who had courageously suffered imprisonment or torture for the faith without gaining the final crown of martyrdom. But later it came to have a wider meaning, and included those who confessed the Christian faith in times of persecution, thus exposing themselves to danger and suffering, or who by a life of extraordinary virtue and merit gave glory to God and to Jesus Christ. Thus in the course of time the name came to have the technical meaning which it has at the present day, and it was applied to all canonized men who do not belong to a special class, such as Martyr, Apostle, Evangelist.

At the beginning of the fourth century public honors were given to the confessors, and St. Martin was among the first to receive from the Church a special office and feast. Religious honor was rendered soon after death to bishops who were renowned for learning and holiness, to apostolic men who had founded churches or had converted whole nations to the true faith, amongst whom our own St. Patrick holds premier rank; to illustrious doctors, such as St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, who, by their writings, had shed luster on the Church of God ; to models of the hermitical or monastic life - St. Anthony, St. Benedict, and others; to pillar saints like St. Simon Stylites, to holy women like St. Genevieve.

There is no documentary evidence now extant to show that the Church, at all times, took up a well-defined role in regard to the cultus to be paid to confessors. The oldest hagiologists often describe at length the veneration in which they were held, and its manifestations, without indicating the manner in which it began. And although bishops frequently intervened to prevent the recognition of undeserving persons, they did not ordinarily take the initiative by an official declaration of sanctity. Even the acts, which in those earlier ages were regarded as equivalent to modern canonization, such as erecting an altar over the sepulcher of the deceased servant of God, or transferring his remains from their first resting place to a tomb more fittingly adorned (the elevatio corporum as it was called), all these and similar acts were rather the outward expression of a cultus already existing than an ecclesiastical authorization for rendering such honor.

But towards the beginning of the seventh century a change becomes noticeable in the discipline of the Church. The interposition of bishops becomes much more frequent, and their approval of the public worship of deceased servants of God assumes a more clear and definite form. Relics in the older sense of the word signified various objects placed on the venerated tombs of the deceased, and sanctified by contact with them, just as in our own day the pallium worn by an archbishop is first placed on the tomb of St. Peter. But the piety of the faithful, not content with relics in this sense of the word, would have true remains - the real bodies of the deceased - transferred to altars upon which the Holy Sacrifice could be offered. These translations, which were very often accompanied by miraculous cures, could not take place without the sanction of the bishops, to whom it belonged to consecrate the altars, pronounce judgment on the authenticity of the remains, and to authorize the public worship of the deceased servant of God.

For the due performance of these solemn acts previous examination was necessary, and the bishop should be satisfied regarding the holiness, the virtues, and the miracles of the deceased. A formal court of inquiry was not regularly held, but reliable information should be always forthcoming. The veneration thus sanctioned by the bishop was rarely extended beyond the limits of his diocese, but there are examples recorded of provincial and national councils making declarations of sanctity, and authorizing public honors for those who were worthy.

It may seem strange that either bishops or provincial or national councils could decree canonization, seeing that canonization involves obligatory cultus by the universal Church, and call into exercise the gift of infallibility. The answer is that such decrees were in effect equivalent to our modern beatification, and the cultus extended only to the local territory over which the grantors held jurisdiction. There was no canonization, in the proper sense of the word, unless with the consent of the Pope, implicit or explicit, the cultus was imposed by way of precept upon the entire Church.

Such was the discipline observed by the Church till near the end of the tenth century. At this period, however, a new and important change occurred. In the canonization of saints, as in many other matters of discipline, a process of centralization took place, and more serious and solemn issues were referred to the Holy See, the central authority in the Church. But the movement was of slow growth; and here, too, practice preceded law, for it is not until two centuries later that the right to beatify and canonize was reserved exclusively to the Holy See. The same dangers to the purity of public worship which first
led to the intervention of the bishops called later, with the expansion of the Church, for the supreme guarantee of the judgment of the Pope. In France, it was revealed to St. Martin of Tours that a supposed martyr, much honored in the diocese, had suffered death not for the faith but for his crimes. And in England, Earl Waltheof, one of the noblemen put to death by William the Conqueror, was widely regarded as a martyr, and miracles were said to have been worked at his tomb. But, on examining the growth and development of this reputation, it was reasonably suspected to be due, in great measure, to a strong national antipathy to the Norman invader. Places might be named in our own time and country which had almost a national reputation for miraculous cures, yet when these alleged wonders were submitted to the calm scrutiny of an ecclesiastical commission the judgment of the commission was found to differ widely from the popular verdict. It is well known, in fact, that local prejudices and sympathies often lend a color to the judgment and, through excessive zeal and religious enthusiasm, even a widespread popular sentiment may be found on careful inquiry to have a strong admixture of error. Considerations of this kind showed the wisdom of having recourse to the venerated authority of the Apostolic See to guard against all possible errors.

The first example of a solemn canonization occurred in 993, when Pope John XV decreed celestial honors to St. Udalric, Bishop of Augsburg.3

There is no exact record of the manner in which the evidence was collected that was submitted to the Pope, but the judgment of his Holiness was founded on the information supplied regarding the holy life of the bishop and the miracles worked at his intercession; and these are the two principal points to be examined in every canonization. The second example of canonization by the Pope was that of St. Simeon of Treves by Benedict VIII in 1402.

In the meantime, however, bishops continued to canonize in their respective dioceses, and an instance of episcopal canonization occurred as late as 1153. St.Peter Damien tells us that, in the eleventh century, bishops assembled in synod decreed the honors of canonization for deceased servants of God, and that in some instances they acted as delegates of the Sovereign Pontiff.

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries the course of the movement may be summed up in this manner. On the one hand the bishops always enjoyed the right of canonization. But, on the other hand, they exercised this right less frequently; greater care and rigor were observed in collecting information with a view to canonization; and gradually recourse was had with greater frequency to the more solemn and authoritative judgment of the Popes. Hence the decision of Pope Alexander III, taken in 1173, is to be regarded, not as an innovation, but rather as the natural development and culmination of the practice existing during the previous two centuries. After reprimanding certain bishops for having permitted honor to be paid to a man who was far from being a saint, the Pope continues: - "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 Roman Church."4

The procedure initiated by the text of Alexander III was confirmed by a Bull of Innocent III in the year 1200, issued on the occasion of the canonization of St. Cunegunde.

From this date onwards the inquiries become more elaborate and intricate, the more lengthened examinations affording a better guarantee of truth. The original minutes of various investigations held during the twelfth, thirteenth, and following centuries are still preserved in the Roman archives. But space does not permit us to enter into details, and it must suffice to draw attention to some remarkable circumstances connected with the practice then followed.

Nowadays canonization cannot take place without a dispensation until more than fifty years shall have elapsed since the death of the servant of God, but during the period under consideration canonization often occurred very near the time of death. Thus St. Francis of Assisi, who died on the 4th of October, 1226, was canonized on the 19th of July, 1228; St. Clare, who died on the 12th of August, 1253, was canonized on the 26th of September, 1255. The delay was still less in the case of St. Anthony of Padua, who died on the 15th of June, 1231, and was canonized on the 3rd of June, 1232; whilst the most rapid canonization of all was that of St. Peter of Castelnau, the first martyr of the Inquisition, who was put to death on the 15th of January, 1208, and for whom Innocent III authorized religious honors on the 12th of March of the same year.

The witnesses in those days were generally eye-witnesses , who were actually acquainted with the holy personages, and who had seen the miracles attributed to their intercession. Before the invention of printing, documentary evidence was not abundant or easily procured, nor was it often necessary when canonization followed so soon after death. The numbers of witnesses too were greater than at the present day; the depositions of over two hundred were taken in the province of Toulouse for the canonization of St. Dominic.

Though the Pope might act in virtue of his office of Supreme Ruler he did not usually take action in cases of canonization, except at the instance of letters from kings, bishops, and, to some extent, under pressure of the public opinion of Christian communities. A survival of this attitude may be noticed at the present day, for the letter of the Postulator begging that the cause be opened in Rome is usually accompanied by petitions to the same effect from distinguished persons in Church and State. In the cause of Blessed Gabriel Possenti (beatified June, 1908), in addition to letters from archbishops, bishops, and others, petitions were sent by twenty-nine cardinals to the Holy Father for his beatification.

There was no substantial change in the mode of procedure until towards the end of the Middle Ages. It is particularly worthy of note that, up to this period, there was no distinction recognized between beatification and canonization; beatification as now understood was not known, and the process culminated at once in formal canonization. The terms "Beatus" and "Saint" were regarded as synonymous, and were both applied to a person who was the object of public and ecclesiastical honor.

But the examination became more strict and precise every day. Instead of one inquiry several were no held, and in each of them sentence was pronounced on the particular question at issue. These different inquiries were generally directed towards one end, and formed the basis of the final definitive sentence. It was easy therefore to see the course that each case would pursue if no obstacle arose that was fatal to success. Moreover, the multiplicity of inquiries led gradually to the distinction between beatified persons and saints. The beatus came to mean one for whom religious honor was permitted by the Church without any formal declaration of his entry into Heaven. For the saint, however, public honor was not only permitted but enjoined on all the faithful, and the Church made an official pronouncement on his virtues and merits. There were two classes of beatified persons. The one class was already in possession of public honor, and the Church merely tolerated the existing veneration. By far the greater number of holy personages of ancient Christendom belonged to this class; and no action was taken by the Church to interfere with the cultus they received provided there was no serious abuse. The others were those whose veneration was authorized beforehand by a solemn decision of the Church.

A significant step forward was taken towards the end of the sixteenth century, when Sixtus V, by the Constitution "Immensa Aeterni Dei," instituted the Sacred Congregation of Rites. The objects of the Congregation are to promote general uniformity in the externals of divine worship, and to take charge of all the processes of beatification and canonization. In the latter function the Congregation is extraordinary, and possess Papal authority. The Council of Trent had already directed bishops and metropolitans to watch with anxious care all that was done regarding the invocation of saints, and the use of images and relics, and to guard against novelty and innovation.

It was found, however, that despite the most jealous care, episcopal rules were disregarded, and instances of unwarranted cultus occurred now and again in various localities. But the Church is a living power and, in virtue of the Divine promises, develops new energies to meet the growing needs of the times. The celebrated Decrees of Urban VIII, issued in 1625 and 1634, finally settled the question. By these decrees it was decided that, without the authority of the Sovereign Pontiff, no religious cultus could be paid to any person recently deceased, however eminent for virtue or celebrated for miracles. After declaring clearly that it was unlawful to honor any person as a saint without the consent of the Roman See, Pope Urban adds that it was not his wish "to prejudice the case of those who were the objects of a cultus arising either out of the general consent of the Church, or a custom of which the memory of man ran not to the contrary, or the writings of the Fathers, or the long and intentional tolerance of the Apostolic See or the Ordinary." With these important exceptions all cultus is now forbidden to a deceased person until the decree authorizing it, which is in reality the decree of Beatification, is issued by the Holy see.

The exceptional causes mentioned in the Decrees of Urban constitute what is technically known as "The Excepted Case"; and all other causes are said to proceed by way of non-cultus.

"A custom of which the memory of man ran not to the contrary" should be a custom reaching back one hundred years before the Decrees of Urban VIII. All causes therefore of persons of a later date than 1524, and also the causes of all those for whom cultus cannot be proved to have existed from that date, follow the procedure of non-cultus. And it is obvious that these two classes are so comprehensive that they comprise nearly all the causes which can be submitted for ecclesiastical inquiry.

The Constitutions of Urban VIII lay down the entire form of procedure in causes of canonization as it exists at the present day. Since the date of these decrees canonization cannot take place unless beatification has been previously obtained, and the right of beatification as well as canonization has been reserved exclusively to the Pope.

It is unnecessary to trace the history of canonization any further. Some additional rules and slight modifications of existing
regulations were introduced by Alexander VII, Innocent XI, and especially by Benedict XIV (1675-1758), who was a master in this subject. But substantially there is no change in the procedure; and the history of canonization from the days of Urban VIII would be mainly a history of the individual causes examined. In the great work of Benedict XIV about 2,070 causes are considered with reference to the cultus paid to them, or their claims to cultus from the Church. And the beatification of Venerable Teresa de St. Agostino and her companions, which was made on the 10th of June, 1906, was the one hundred and thirteenth beatification which took place after that of St. Francis of Sales in 1661.

1 Tertullian in Apologetico, Cap. V.

2 Alban Butler, under "Tarachus."

3 Some historians maintain that the first solemn canonization was of St. Swibert, by Pope Leo III, in 804.

4 De Reliq. Et Vener. Sanctorum

Return to Contents

Return to home page.