Q: I have trouble keeping all of this straight. What steps does the Church follow in recognizing saints? How do Servants of God and Venerables differ? Does something special happen to a saint’s mortal body?
A: For almost the first millennium of the Church’s life, there was no centralized canonization process with investigation of the person’s life and miracles attributed to his or her intercession. The local Church recognized as saints holy women and men whose life and death demonstrated great virtue.
The term “Servant of God” now describes someone at the start of the entire process, which begins in the local diocese and eventually moves to the Holy See’s Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. A person whose life and writings have been formally investigated can be declared Venerable. Martyrs do not need a miracle for beatification. For others, after a miracle has been investigated and accepted by separate committees of doctors, theologians and cardinals, the person is approved for beatification.
Technically, that means the person can be honored liturgically in a specific region or within a certain group (for example, a religious community founded by the new blessed). Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, however, is venerated far beyond India or the several religious communities she founded. Another miracle is needed for her canonization.
A person with an unknown grave can be beatified or canonized. There is no grave, for example, for St. Maximilian Kolbe who was murdered at Auschwitz in 1941. If the place of burial is known, there is a “public recognition of the body” before the beatification.
Kenneth Woodward’s book Making Saints explains the canonization process very well. “A saint,” he writes, “is always someone through whom we catch a glimpse of what God is like—and of what we are called to be.”