Historical Sketch of Canonization


There are three classes of witnesses. The ordinary witnesses, called by the Postulator of the cause for the purpose of proving his own statements and articles. The official witnesses, who are called by the Judges or, according to the custom now generally received, by the Procurator Fiscal or Promoter of the Faith. At least two official witnesses must be summoned under pain of invalidity in every Process to confirm or weaken the other testimony, according as the exigencies of truth demand. And should it be known to the Judges in any way that there are witnesses who are unfavorable to the success of the cause these witnesses must be also officially summoned by the Judges, otherwise most serious, and sometimes fatal, difficulties would follow. Thirdly, there are confirmatory witnessesthat is to say, those who are named by other witnesses in the course of their evidence as well informed in the subjectmatter of their testimony. These witnesses are produced by the Judges or by the representative of the Crown.

Witnesses may be either men or women, and they are all solemnly sworn to tell the whole truth and to observe the law of secrecy in regard to the questions and answers until the close of the Process. Those who give false evidence, or conceal the truth, or violate the obligation of secrecy, are guilty of perjury, and incur excommunication reserved to the Pope. Cardinals and Bishops take the oath standing and touching their breasts; all other witnesses are sworn whilst genuflecting and touching the Holy Gospels. All the witnesses sign their names to the oath they have taken.

In giving their evidence witnesses must take the utmost care to tell all they know, whether this is in favor, or to the detriment, of the success of the cause. They should state the facts with all the circumstances, and should indicate clearly the source of their informationnamely, whether they themselves saw the occurrences they narrate, whether they heard of them directly from those who were eyewitnesses, whether they derived their information from reading, or whether the facts were notorious, or, at least, matters of common knowledge. They should use clear, simple language; and the utmost latitude is allowed to them for correcting their evidence, so that all doubt and difficulty may be removed and the exact truth elicited. If in the course of the examination they should happen to forget anything which they may afterwards call to mind, they are bound to make this known to the Judge or to the Fiscal or Promoter of the Faith, even if the Process is already closed.

The witnesses are examined, first of all, on the Interrogatories prepared by the Procurator or Promoter, and a simple Yes or No, without addition of any kind, is never taken for an answer. Such a reply is regarded as useless, and the witnesses must state the facts fully and minutely according to their knowledge. Before the examination on the facts of the case is begun some general questions are proposed. In the first place and this is an admonition rather than a question the witness is reminded of the binding force of an oath, the obligation of speaking the truth, and the gravity of the sin of perjury. He is next asked his name, the names of his parents, his age, his place of birth, his profession or occupation in life. Then he is interrogated as to whether he performs every year the duties of annual confession and communion, whether he was ever accused or convicted of crime, whether he ever incurred ecclesiastical censure, whether he was instructed by anyone in regard to the manner in which he was to give his evidence, whether he is actuated by human motives or by zeal for the glory of God, whether he was personally acquainted with the servant of God, whether he heard of him, and from whom, or read of him, and who was the author of the book or writing; finally, whether he is moved by any strong friendship or devotion towards the servant of God, and whether he particularly desires his beatification.

When all these questions are answered, the witness is examined at full length on all the Interrogatories prepared by the Procurator or Promoter, next on the statements and Articles drawn up by the Postulator of the cause. The examiner in both instances, according to the custom now established, is the Procurator Fiscal or Promoter of the Faith. In order that the examination be legitimately carried out each of the witnesses should be examined on all the Interrogatories; but it is not necessary that the witnesses be examined on all the Articles, it suffices that they give evidence regarding those Articles upon which they have been summoned to bear testimony.

At the end of each session the witness signs his evidence; and if the witness is unable to write he makes his mark in the form of a cross, the Actuary testifying that this is the mark of the witness. It is customary, too, that before signing the Actuary should read out in a clear, intelligible voice the depositions of the witness, and that the witness should be afforded facilities for adding to or subtracting from the evidence, according as may be necessary in the interests of truth. If an interpreter is required he is selected by the Judges and he is sworn to observe secrecy and to do his work faithfully.

In the quest of truth, especially in causes of canonization, it is obviously of supreme importance that the witnesses should state the facts clearly and fully, and no precaution is omitted which would help them to give their evidence with the utmost accuracy and precision.

If it is asked how many witnesses are actually required in these enquiries the answer must be that the number varies in different circumstances. It is a general rule, however, that no Process is valid in which at least eight or ten witnesses have not been examined, of which two must be official witnesses. With this limitation the question is left in great measure to the judgment and discretion of the Postulator of the cause. To save unnecessary expense, and prevent the accumulation of irrelevant and useless evidence, it is expected that the number would not be immoderate and excessive. But in the Informative Process for proving the reputation for sanctity and miracles it is congruous that a larger number of witnesses should be produced than in subsequent Processes; and from the very fact that it is held at a date nearer the time of death of the servant of God. a larger number is available in this Process. If but few witnesses can be produced in the Informative Process, the number must be still smaller in succeeding ones, and thus the ultimate success of the cause must be doubtful. When there is question of those servants of God who had led retired and solitary lives remote from society it is always difficult to produce abundant evidence; and this very difficulty is the reason why many hermits and solitaries, who had led lives of extraordinary holiness, have never been enrolled in the catalog of saints. On the other hand, if the deceased person had lived in a large city the number of witnesses required to prove the reputation is much greater than for one who had lived in a less populous district, for reputation is a relative term and varies with the population. But it is to be borne in mind that, at all times, the authority and prudence of the witnesses examined must compensate to a large extent for deficiency in numbers. The eminent Judge, Lord Chief Baron Palles, was examined recently in the cause of Venerable Oliver Plunkett,. and it is evident that the testimony of such a witness must be regarded as of the utmost importance. But, making due allowance for all these considerations, it is a general principle, laid down by the ablest writers on this subject, that the proof of the reputation for sanctity would be regarded as weak and imperfect if it was not solemnly attested by at least thirty witnesses. This is a most remarkable statement, and nothing can illustrate more forcibly the extreme care and diligence with which all human means are availed of to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.


The chief duties of the Secretaries are to make a faithful copy of the minutes and acts of the Process for transmission to the Congregation of Rites. The Secretaries are sworn to the faithful discharge of their duties. As a rule the minutes are transcribed when the Process is complete and the obligation of secrecy ceases; but if there is reason for more prompt action parts of the minutes may be handed over for transcription before the enquiry is finished. In this case the Secretaries are sworn to secrecy. The Secretaries are sometimes deputed in the course of the Process to make faithful copies of documents preserved in archives or libraries.


The official deputed to bring the Acts and minutes of the Process to the Sacred Congregation in Rome is called the Bearer. The Bearer binds himself by oath to take the copy of the minutes to Rome and present it with due formality to the Congregation. He receives this copy, which must be in manuscript, from the Actuary in presence of the Judges, together with the official instrument declaring the Process closed, the letter of the Judges and that of the Fiscal Promoter or SubPromoter of the Faith. All these documents are most carefully closed and sealed. On reaching Rome the Bearer approaches the Secretary of the Congregation, and a day is appointed upon which he hands over the documents entrusted to his charge. And the Chancellor of the Congregation inspects the documents carefully in presence of the Secretary, and, having been satisfied that the presentation is duly made, the duties of the Bearer are at an end. It is the authenticated copy that is always sent to Rome, the official minutes being preserved in the archives of the Bishop in whose diocese the Process was held. By adopting this course all difficulties are obviated, for, if any doubt should arise as to the authenticity of any part of the transcript, recourse can at once be had to the original, and the matter can thus be definitely settled.

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So much having been said regarding the various officials and their duties, it remains to draw attention to a few other points relating to the construction of the Processes.

If any official dies in the course of the enquiry, or becomes incapacitated for his work, a successor must be appointed by a new commission or delegation. The privilege of filling the vacancy belongs to the same authority that enjoyed the right of making the original appointment. It is customary to fix a time limit, say of one, two, or more years, within which the work of the Process should be brought to a close. Any work done after the fixed term has expired is absolutely null and void. The limit is settled by the Bishop in Ordinary Processes, and by the Remissorial Letter of the Pope in Apostolic Processes. And it is the duty of the Postulator to watch carefully lest the time limit be exceeded, and, if necessary, petition for a prorogation or prolongation from the proper authority.

The Judges, the Fiscal Promoter, and the Actuary undertake a most responsible task in these examinations. And they are expected to display the greatest diligence and zeal, knowing that they are working for the glory of God and the exaltation of the Church. They must go neither too fast nor too slow, avoiding undue haste lest the work should be imperfectly done, and unnecessary slowness on the other hand, for expenses are accumulated and other inconveniences incurred if the enquiry is excessively prolonged..

The oath administered to the officials varies with the different offices, and the form of oath taken may be found in textbooks officially recognized as guides for Postulators. All these oaths bind as a matter of course under the penalty of perjury. But where the law of secrecy is superadded this obligation of secrecy binds under pain of excommunication, from which only the Pope himself, to the exclusion even of the Major Penitentiary, can absolve except in the case of danger of death.

There is scarcely any possible difficulty for which ample provision is not made in the Decrees of the Church. But should any unforeseen obstacle arise, as, for example, strong evidence against the success of the cause, then all further enquiry is to be suspended until recourse is had to the Holy See for direction.

All dignitaries, canons, beneficiaries and others bound to attend in choir are dispensed from all choral duties whilst engaged in these causes. At the same time they enjoy the choir privileges and receive the usual emoluments just as if they were actually present at the duties.

When the enquiry is complete and the minutes have been transmitted to Rome the next step is the opening of the Process for final decision before the Congregation of Rites. If the evidence is in any language except Latin or Italian, Translators and Revisors must first be appointed. In 1889 a decree was issued by Pope Leo XIII. in this connection. To prevent irregularity His Holiness called attention to a rule of Urban VIII. by which Translators and Revisors were to be elected and deputed by the Cardinal Relator of the cause, and in no circumstances by the Judges of the Process. The Cardinal Relator, as the name implies, is the official selected by the Pope to relate or submit to the Congregation the Acts of the Process. The same decree directs that the autograph minutes of the Process, closed and sealed, be preserved in the episcopal archives and that only one other copy be made, which must be in manuscript, and not printed, typewritten, or in any other form. This copy must be sent, closed and sealed, to Rome, and must not be opened without the permission of the Pope. It was also decreed that a special kind of durable paper be used lest the writing should become illegible in the course of time.

Then, if there is question of the Ordinary Process constructed with the view of obtaining the Introduction of the Cause, the procedure in Rome is briefly as follows:As has been stated already, the Commission of Introduction is not signed except by special dispensation until ten years have elapsed since the Process was presented to the Congregation. This dispensation is readily granted, when, on account of the advanced age of the witnesses in the Ordinary Process, it would be morally impossible for them to be reexamined in the Apostolic Process if a period of ten years were allowed to intervene. It is also given without difficulty when a long period of time has passed between the death of the servant of God and the establishment of the Ordinary Process. The object of the decennial law is to guard against bias and prejudice, to save witnesses from the danger of having their evidence tainted by strong feeling if they are examined soon after the death of the servant of God, when his reputation for holiness is most intense. And in the cases mentioned this danger is remote, and there is strong reason for the dispensation.

The question of date having been settled, the Ordinary Process is opened in the Eternal City; and the Cardinal Relator of the cause having been appointed, the Procurator prepares an Information which he hands with a summary of the Process to the SubPromoter of the Faith, who lodges his objections to the Petition to which the Procurator is bound to reply. The cause is then considered in an ordinary Congregation, if the Pope gives permissionotherwise in a general Congregation. If the Congregation is favorable, the final petition or commission is prepared to be signed by the Holy Father. This petition is drawn up by the Procurator and given to the Promoter of the Faith, who may make some alterations, after which he testifies at the foot that he has seen the document. The Secretary of the Congregation bears it to the Supreme Pontiff, who, if he approves it, signs it with the word PLACET, adding the first letter of his baptismal name, not that of his pontificate. This supplication or petition, granted and signed by the Pope, is called the Commission of Introduction, and authorizes the Sacred Congregation to proceed with the cause.

To obtain the signing of this Commission memorials and petitions of a spontaneous and urgent nature are sent to the Holy Father by kings, princes and persons of distinction in Church and State. Amongst such distinguished persons are Kingsregent, Presidents, Governors, Counselors of State; and in the Church, Cardinals, Patriarchs, Archbishops, Bishops, Cathedral and Collegiate Chapters, Heads of Ecclesiastical Seminaries, Dignitaries, Religious Orders and their Superiors General. The Church rarely takes action until petitioned in this way; and the memorials should give expression to the remarkable reputation for sanctity or martyrdom and miracles enjoyed by the deceased servant of God, and the widespread holy desire that the Supreme Pontiff would place him on the venerated roll of the saints.

The procedure in Rome for Apostolic Processes is substantially the same as that just described for the Ordinary Process, and is given in detail in the chapter explaining the work of the Process on the Reputation in general.

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