The ancient process of attaining sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church has evolved gradually over the last thousand years or so. In the early years of the church, saints were chosen by public acclaim. But by the 10th century, Catholic bishops, and eventually the Vatican, assumed responsibility for the process.

Before someone can be declared a saint, the church requires that those putting forward the candidate follow a series of steps that have been laid down and subsequently modified over the centuries. Full canonization — the process leading to the declaration of sainthood — can often take decades or even centuries.

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Pope John Paul II waves in St. Peter's Square in Rome on April 10, 2003, as a white dove is released in honour of his repeated calls for peace. ((Massimo Sambucetti/Associated Press))

The move to have the late Pope John Paul II canonized quickly got an early boost from his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, who waived the five-year waiting period that would traditionally be required before the formal launch of proceedings. John Paul was beatified on May 1, 2011, after Benedict declared the cure of a French nun who suffered from Parkinson's disease was a miracle.

It was John Paul who reformed the church’s Code of Canon Law in 1983, streamlining the process of attaining sainthood. For one thing, John Paul eliminated the so-called "Devil’s Advocate" position from the investigating process. This person’s job was to attack the evidence in favour of canonization.

The process of becoming a Catholic saint — steeped in faith, tradition and doctrine — now involves the following key steps:

Investigation

The process begins in the candidate’s own diocese, where a local bishop gives his approval to the start of an investigation into someone who is widely thought of as having "extraordinary" holiness. Normally, the investigation cannot start until five years after the death of a candidate. But, as already noted, that requirement can be waived by the reigning pope, just as John Paul waived the five-year wait for Mother Teresa.

The beginning of the process — "the opening of the cause," as it’s known — begins when the bishop launches an investigation into the candidate’s case. An advocate for the candidate is appointed. Called a postulator, this advocate examines the candidate’s life, his or her writings, teachings, acts of holiness, heroic acts and any other virtues that would indicate that the person being proposed for sainthood is truly worthy of such a declaration.

Once this process is underway, the candidate can be referred to as a "Servant of God." Once sufficient information has been gathered, it is sent to the Vatican for further examination.

After the pertinent facts and testimonials are gathered, the postulator presents the evidence to a special panel of theologians and cardinals known as the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The formal argument for the candidate’s canonization is then printed in a volume called the positio.

The Vatican panel examines the evidence, and if it judges the case to have merit, the reigning pope will then proclaim the candidate as "Venerable," meaning that the candidate is a role model of Catholic virtue.

Beatification

The next step toward sainthood is beatification. Before someone can be beatified, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints must verify a miracle. Many people believe that a candidate must be credited as being responsible for a miracle during their lifetime. In fact, the miracle must be posthumous — the miracle must be attributed to a person's intercession after his or her death.

And what constitutes a miracle? The New Catholic Encyclopedia defines a miracle as something "above the course of nature and beyond its productive powers," an extraordinary event that is produced by God, acting through others, and verified by witnesses. Once beatified, the candidate is referred to with the title "Blessed," as in the Blessed Mother Teresa, who was beatified in a 2003 ceremony.

Modern miracles typically involve some kind of unexpected recovery from an illness or condition that medicine cannot explain. This recovery would typically occur following the patient’s or family’s prayers to the candidate, or being placed near an image or medal of the person (as in Mother Teresa’s case).

There is one exception to the "one miracle" rule before beatification. A martyr — someone who died for their religious beliefs — can be beatified without evidence of a miracle.

Beatification allows the candidate to be honoured within his or her diocese, region or religious order. But for church-wide recognition, those proposing a candidate for canonization have more conditions to satisfy.

Canonization

Before someone can be canonized as a saint, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints must be presented with evidence of a second posthumous miracle. This miracle must be verified before the canonization can proceed and it must have occurred after the candidate’s beatification.

This final step to sainthood is not taken lightly — canonization is considered to be an infallible act of the pope. That explains the rigorous process — there cannot be errors in the selection of saints. Sainthood is not revocable — there are no "former" saints.

Once canonized, the candidate is given the title "Saint," usually shortened to the written designation "St." preceding the person’s first name.

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Brother André, in an undated photo from St. Joseph's Oratory, taken in his later years.

The number of Catholic saints is a matter of some debate, depending on whether one counts the many ancient and medieval saints who were given that honour without formal canonization. The Catholic Online website counts more than 10,000 who have been named saints or "beati," those beatified but not canonized. But that number includes ancient saints, Roman martyrs and Orthodox saints. Other estimates put the number of Catholic saints at about 3,000. Pope John Paul II himself canonized 484 saints and beatified 1,337.

There are 11 Canadian saints, including eight Jesuit martyrs canonized in 1930. John Paul canonized two, St. Marguerite Bourgeoys and St. Marguerite d'Youville, in 1982 and 1990, respectively. Brother André, the church's first Canadian-born male saint, was canonized in October 2010.

Patron saints

Patron saints are chosen as guardians or protectors over particular aspects of life, representing such diverse areas as illnesses, occupations, countries, animals or causes (e.g., St. Christopher, patron saint of travellers). They are usually chosen from the ranks of existing canonized saints.