A friend once remarked that it’s harder to be declared a saint than to live as one. He was obviously kidding, but there’s some truth in that. The canonization process is notoriously long and arduous. It involves stacks and stacks of paperwork and several years of grueling research. The process usually takes a decade or more, which is why Mother Teresa’s beatification could be described as “streamlined” after finishing in six years.
The current canonization procedures have been in effect since 1983. They involve three major steps: venerability, beatification, and canonization, which yield the titles “Venerable”, “Blessed”, and “Saint” respectively.
The “venerability” stage begins at least five years after the candidate’s death (though in special cases, like Mother Teresa and John Paul II, this minimum can be eschewed.) After fiver years, if there’s wide public support for the candidate’s holiness, the local bishop gives permission to investigate his or her virtues.
The investigation is intense. It involves myriad interviews with people who knew the person, including friends, family, and even antagonists. It also requires an exhaustive study of all his or her writings and teachings. When all the research is complete, it’s then packaged into a set of books known as the “positio”. The books are then hand-delivered to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints in Rome where they are extensively reviewed over several more years.
If the Congregation reads and approves the documents, it then recommends to the Pope that the person be declared “Venerable.” This affirms he or she lived with “heroic virtue” and is worthy of being honored and imitated by the faithful. It’s the first major mark on the path toward canonization and a real cause for celebration.
Ten years ago, Pope John Paul II gave two Polish thumbs up to launching an investigation into the life of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. Personally, John Paul II was a close friend of Sheen’s and purportedly learned English by listening to Sheen’s talks. More generally, Sheen was one of the most influential Catholics in the twentieth-century, particularly through his evangelization on television and radio. He was also a renowned philosopher and theologian, and a champion of justice as National Director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. After seven years of investigation, the study officially wrapped up in 2009 and the positio was sealed and delivered to Rome.
And then after three years of anticipation, it finally happened. On June 28, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI approved the 6,500+ page positio and declared Archbishop Fulton Sheen, “Venerable.”
Last week I had the great joy of celebrating the announcement with hundreds of Sheen admirers in Peoria, IL. We had a special Mass of Thanksgiving along with a very nice breakfast peppered with Sheen anecdotes and quips.
But maybe the coolest experience was examining an exact replica of Sheen’s official positio. For a long-time Sheen devotee, this was really special; I felt like I was holding a piece of history. Most of the content was in Latin. But since the quotes and anecdotes were in English, I could read some of it. I recognized short excerpts from his books, and was delighted to read a couple stories from close family and friends.
Thankfully we caught it all on video. So click below and see for yourself the mammoth amount of work it takes to be declared a saint (and encourage your friends to start working on your positio now):