Church Current

What it takes to be a saint

On April 27, the Catholic Church added Popes John XXIII and John Paul II to its list of saints. About 800,000 gathered in Rome, pouring into St. Peter’s Square and its nearby streets, celebrating the lives of these holy men as they were recognized as heroes of the faith.

Cities all over the world held their own local celebrations. Vancouver’s event attracted 10,000 to the Pacific Coliseum and hosted Pope Francis’ representative to Canada, Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi.

For Catholics, saints are people who were holy, had virtues worth imitating, and are part of the great cloud of heavenly witnesses. They fit alongside people like Moses and John the Baptist.

But being pope does not make a saint. Canonization — admitting someone into the canon of saints — is a long and expensive process that involves experts scrutinizing the details of the life of someone who is considered holy.

Years after a holy person dies, the Vatican digs up all the dirt on that person they can find — letters, books, interviews with people who knew them — and looks for heroic virtue and evidence they had faith and good morals. The research then goes to a panel of theologians and cardinals; if they all approve, the Pope calls that person “Venerable.”

The next step is beatification. This requires a bona fide miracle, where something in connection with the holy person happens that is impossible to explain except by divine intervention. Theologians as well as Catholic and non-Catholic scientists and doctors thoroughly examine the evidence. Once a holy person is associated with one miracle, the Pope can give them the title “Blessed.” (The fast track to this step is martyrdom. If you die for your faith, that’s enough proof of heroic virtue.)

What’s left after “Blessed” is one more proven miracle. If a holy person has two miracles attributed to them, along with that reputation for holiness, the Pope considers the evidence and may declare that person a saint. A celebration ensues.

It’s the normal way people are declared saints. But thanks to Pope Francis, Pope John XXIII was approved after only one miracle, because popes can do that.

Born in Poland in 1975, Pope John Paul II risked his life to become a priest at an underground seminary during the Second World War. During his 27 years as Pope, he championed human dignity, ecumenism, and God’s mercy. He watched the collapse of communism in Poland, survived an assassination attempt, travelled to countries no Pope had seen before, and was popular with young people.

At his funeral in 2005, crowds in St. Peter’s square shouted “Santo subito!” (“Saint now!”)

Up for sainthood status on the same day, Pope John XXIII was nicknamed “il Papa buono,” or “the good Pope.” When he was elected in 1958, many guessed the round 76-year-old would not be Pope for long. But he surprised the Catholic world by calling a council which brought about reforms such as allowing Mass to be celebrated in languages besides Latin. His writings featured themes of peace, freedom, and social justice. He died in 1963, before the council closed.

Find out more about canonization at

Photo by DPA (CC).