Why do we have saints? Because we need heroes

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, May 4, 2014

The church has saints because people need heroes. So says Oblate Father William Woestman, promoter of justice for the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Metropolitan Tribunal, who has worked on the causes of several saints over the course of his ministry.

“People have wanted saints from the very early days of the church,” Woestman said. “People need heroes who walked the same sidewalks and breathed the same air.”

It started with the early Christians gathering at the burial sites of the martyrs, celebrating the dates of their deaths, the dates they gave their lives for the faith.

Many modern saints are also martyrs; Pope Francis last year canonized more than 800 Italians who refused conversion to Islam and were beheaded in the 15th century, and around the world, hundreds of Catholics have been killed in recent years because of their faith, Woestman said.

While neither Pope John XXIII nor Pope John Paul II were martyred, they do have the devotion of Catholics around the world, and that is the first thing needed for someone to be formally recognized as a saint.

“The most democratic process the church has is canonization, because it starts with the people,” Woestman said. “There has to be a devotion to this person, and they have to believe that this person led a heroic Christian life.”

Perhaps the best-known saint from Chicago is Mother Frances Cabrini, founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who died at Columbus Hospital in Chicago in 1917 and was canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1946.

“She came to serve the immigrant people, and she was beloved by them, so there was a real devotion to her,” Woestman said.

Cause is opened
Once a devotion has been established, the bishop of the diocese where the proposed saint died can be petitioned to open a cause for sainthood. A postulator — something like an attorney for the sainthood cause — is appointed, and, after receiving approval from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the gathering of testimony can begin. That testimony should include all the information available, both favorable and not.

“The cause is really a trial, not to convict somebody of something, but to prove they were a saint,” Woestman said.

In the case of martyrs, that means proving that they died because of hatred of the faith. In the case of those that were not martyred, it means proving that they lived the Christian virtues heroically.

In most cases, the archbishop appoints a delegate, called the instructor, to oversee the cause, and the promoter of justice sees that the law is followed. Notaries ensure that everything is done properly.

The Archdiocese of Chicago is now in this phase of pursuing the cause of Father Augustus Tolton, the first acknowledged African-American priest in the U.S. who died in Chicago in 1897.

Off to Rome
Once the local phase is finished, the material generated, called the positio, is sent to Rome, where another postulator shepherds it through the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. First, if the congregation concludes that the records show the person did live a life of heroic virtue, the position is presented to the pope, who can declare the person “venerable.”

Then, if panels of medical experts and theologians both in the diocese and at the Vatican find evidence of a miracle, the proposed saint can be beatified and called “blessed.” In most cases, a second miracle is needed before the person is canonized and officially recognized as a saint.

“It’s important to note that the miracle is not proof of holiness,” Woestman said. “It’s simply confirmation of a determination of holiness that was already made, and the requirement of a miracle can be waived by the Holy Father at any time.”

That’s precisely what Pope Francis did in the case of Pope John XXIII, who had a miracle credited to him when he was beatified in 2000, but has not a second miracle confirmed.

The two popes
Woestman said that Pope Francis likely wanted to canonize his two predecessors together because they provide a “nice mixture.”

“Pope John XXIII was an educated man and a doctor of canon law, and he called the (Second Vatican) Council, but he was considered by the people to be a simple parish priest,” Woestman said. “John Paul II was an intellectual of the first order, and he continued the work of the council. For most of our young people today, he is the only pope they knew before Benedict XVI was elected.”

Besides, Woestman said, “Francis likes to canonize saints.”


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