Seeking sainthood in the Catholic Church? If you’re from outside Western Europe, things are looking up.
A Harvard University study suggests both an uptick in saint-making and a larger portion of new saints coming from outside Western Europe, thanks to increasing competition for worshipers around the world from Protestant religions.
Sainthood is quite an exclusive club for American Catholics. Pope Francis’s plans to canonize a Spanish missionary next week will be only the 11th canonization of anyone with close ties to America, and the ceremony will be the first of its kind to take place on U.S. soil. During his trip to the United States later this month, the pope will canonize Junipero Serra, who spread Catholicism in modern-day California. Declaring Serra a saint — meaning the Catholic Church recognizes that a person has made it to heaven and can intercede for those on earth — hasn’t been without controversy.
How might you find your way onto this Catholic A-list?
For starters, the type of saint we’re talking about is a heavenly being, so according to the church, you can’t be canonized while you’re alive (normally the process doesn’t start until at least five years after death).
Here’s the procedure a person goes through to become a saint:
Saints generally fall into two categories: martyrs and confessors. Martyrs are people who died because of their faith. Martyrs only need proof of one miracle, often an unexplained cure of an illness, to become a saint.
For confessors, who did not die for the faith, a church council determines if the person lived a life of “heroic virtue,” often by practicing or spreading Catholicism under threat of persecution.
Confessors normally need proof of two miracles (one for beatification and one for canonization), but the second miracle has been waived in certain recent cases, including for Junipero Serra.
Let’s assume you don’t become a martyr and focus on the confessor route. Here’s a bit of good news for your prospective sainthood: The church has been naming more confessor saints in the last few decades than at any time in its history, going back to when the church formalized the process in 1588.
The findings of the Harvard study on Catholic saint-making show that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI canonized confessors at an “unprecedented pace.” John Paul II canonized 80 confessors in his 26½ years as the head of the church. No pope before him had named more than 30.
Francis is declaring saints at an even faster pace than his predecessors, having canonized 20 confessors in just 2½ years. Controlling for the length of the papacy, recent popes have produced many more saints per year on average.
To put these numbers in perspective: In just 15 years since the start of the 21st century, the church has canonized more than half the number of people it did in the entire 20th century.
The study suggests that this uptick in saint-making, with a larger portion coming from outside Western Europe, is attributable to increasing competition around the world from Protestant religions. Several popes have used trips abroad to canonize local saints, as Francis will do Sept. 23. The study suggests the intent is to enliven local Catholic populations.
“Conferring beatification and sainthood on a person is a wonderful publicity opportunity for the church,” Rachel McCleary, one of the study’s authors, said in an e-mail.
This is more good news for a wanna-be saint such as yourself, who may not live in the traditional saint-producing countries of Western Europe (Italy has produced the most by far, with 320; Spain and France follow, with 89 and 76, respectively.)
Not convinced any of this will help your cause? There’s one more thing you could try: Become the pope. About one in three popes has been canonized, with about 10 more beatified — only one step away. But don’t get your hopes up too much. Being pontiff would pretty much guarantee sainthood in the early church, but it has become less of an indicator recently.
A final note: the Vatican group that considers people for sainthood largely bases its decisions on the actions and writings of the person while they were alive, so you’ll need to do something pretty extraordinary to be considered. Here are a couple of examples of what American saints have done:
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was an upper-class New Yorker who married a wealthy businessman. Ten years after their marriage, she was widowed and poor, raising five children. She converted to Catholicism and went on to found the first religious order in America. Today, in fact, marks the 40th anniversary of her canonization.
Sts. Marian Cope and Damien de Veuster both served a community of people with leprosy in Molokai, Hawaii, by doing things like building schools and churches and running a hospital. Don’t book your one-way plane ticket just yet, though — the quarantine was lifted in 1969, and only a half-dozen patients remain there.
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