Dioceses must be meticulous about saints

21 Feb 2008

By The Record


Carmelite Sister Lucia dos Santos, the last of the three Fatima visionaries, died February 13, 2005 at her convent in Coimbra, Portugal. Here, Carmelite nuns pray in their cloister on October 3, 2005 at the convent where Sister Lucia spent 56 years of her life. The nuns were offering special prayers upon the death of a nun’s father. Photo: CNS

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – In a new set of rules encouraged by Pope Benedict
XVI, the Vatican is requiring dioceses to be more meticulous and
objective when they prepare local sainthood causes.
The new norms do not introduce revolutionary changes in the
existing process, but they tighten up the margin of error and require
better documentation in order to avoid carelessness or even, in the
Vatican’s words, "fraud or deception."
The rules are contained in a 45-page instruction made public by
the Congregation for Saints’ Causes in February. The instruction
revises the procedures used by dioceses to recognize and investigate
potential saints before forwarding their causes to Rome.
The instruction covers everything from the medical
investigation of miraculous cures to the interrogation of favorable and
unfavorable witnesses.
Above all, it urges those investigating the life of a would-be
saint to act with utmost impartiality and avoid whitewashing any
personal faults or negative aspects that emerge.


The basis for opening a sainthood investigation is that the subject
enjoys a "fame of holiness" — or "fame of martyrdom" if a martyr –
among the faithful of the place where he or she lived. Investigators
also must show a "fame of signs" or graces received through the
person’s intercession.
"The fame must be spontaneous and not artificially procured. It
must be stable, continuous and widespread among people worthy of faith
and present in a significant part of the people of God," the
instruction says.
In other words, this cannot be merely a small group of people
who decide their deceased friend was a good Christian. Nor can it be a
religious order that pushes the cause of a founder or member who is not
widely known or influential outside the order.
That’s a point Pope Benedict emphasized in a talk to the
saints’ congregation in 2006, when he said a sainthood cause cannot be
initiated without proven fame of holiness, "even if these people
distinguished themselves through consistency to the Gospel and through
ecclesial and social merits."
The local bishop must appoint a postulator to investigate all
of this, and he cannot hide any "contrary findings," the instruction
says. All the faithful must be invited to give information about the
Two basic types of evidence are gathered about a would-be
saint: an examination of writings and oral testimony. Theological
experts must examine published writings and are encouraged to look at
unpublished writings, too, in order to make sure they conform to the
Again, the experts are instructed not to leave out any negative aspects they may uncover.
When it comes to the interrogation of witnesses, the new rules
are designed to exclude any risk of leading questions. Questions should
be "brief, not tricky, not deceitful, not suggesting an answer," the
instruction says.
At least for causes of those recently deceased, those
testifying should be eyewitnesses, having had direct knowledge of the
person. They should be asked to provide concrete facts and specific
examples, not merely impressions or second-hand information.
For the cause of a religious congregation member, most
witnesses should come from outside the order. A confessor or spiritual
director should not be called to be a witness, the instruction states.
If the witness’ testimony is tape-recorded, the witness must
re-listen to the tape in order to make corrections or clarifications,
then sign a transcript of the final version.
The new rules insist on careful investigation of presumed
miraculous healings, with testimony from doctors involved. If the
person cured is still alive, two experts must personally check the
health of the person and use "all clinical and technical means" to
judge whether he or she truly and permanently was cured.
The instruction addresses old and new technology. On the one
hand, it tells diocesan officials how to bind and fasten documents –
with the seal of the local bishop – for security purposes before
sending them to Rome.
On the other hand, it specifically states that a computer may
be used in the interrogation of witnesses — a rare instance of the
Vatican giving its official blessing to digital data.
The document repeatedly sounds a note of caution: At no time in
this preliminary process should diocesan officials give Catholics the
idea that the person under investigation is certain to be named a
This don’t-jump-the-gun caveat doesn’t rule out private
devotion as the sainthood cause takes its course, but there should be
no public devotion carried out by the local church without prior
authorization by the Vatican.
The instruction retains the five-year waiting period after a person’s death before the diocesan investigation can begin.
That’s a rule the pope can bend, however. In fact,
just a few days before the new instruction was unveiled, Pope Benedict
lifted the waiting period for Carmelite Sister Lucia dos Santos, one of the three Portuguese children who saw Our Lady of Fatima in 1917.