To canonize a new Catholic saint, it takes a miracle

Last month, at a church in Baltimore, a group of Catholics launched a campaign calling on Pope Francis to name six men and women the first black Catholic saints in the United States. The six candidates include Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange (circa 1789-1882), who founded a school for black girls in Baltimore in 1828, and Reverend Augustus Tolton (1854-1897), who was born into slavery and studied for the priesthood in Rome after being rejected from every American seminary to which he had applied.

“It is embarrassing to many of us in America that in the church where we worship there are no African-American Saints in the United States recognized by the highest ecclesiastical authorities,” one reads in one. petition to Pope Francis. “We know there is a process, but it doesn’t work for black American Catholics and their supporters. The process is reaping unjust and unequal results… Please canonize them immediately.

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni replied that investigations are underway on the six proposed saints and that in some cases their “heroic virtues” have been officially recognized. But the Vatican’s rules for canonization – the pope’s formal declaration that someone is a saint – usually require at least one verified miracle attributed to the proposed saint’s intercession, something that has not yet happened to anyone. of the six black Americans. There are a number of canonized black saints, most of them from Africa, but including the Peruvian Saint Martin de Porres (1579-1639), who cared for orphans, the poor and the sick.

Pope Francis, in remarks to Vatican officials two years ago, reaffirmed “the need for the miracle” to decide someone is a saint. “A miracle is needed because it is precisely the hand of God over there. Without a clear intervention from the Lord, we cannot move forward, ”said the Pope.

The systematic canonization process, established by the Vatican in the 18th century to replace the more informal medieval traditions of worship, can take years to verify such a miracle and often never does. Proponents of proposed saints generally encourage the faithful to pray for their intercession and to collect healing reports for the Vatican to consider possible miracles.

The element of the miraculous is the most mysterious – and to unbelievers, the least convincing – part of the process the church goes through to honor its holy men and women. According to a glossary of doctrinal terms published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, a miracle is “a sign or wonder such as healing or control of nature, which can only be attributed to divine power.” .

Holiness candidate Henriette Delille is pictured in a stained glass window in St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, Louisiana.


Gregory A. Shemitz

When it comes to saints, a miracle is “divine confirmation of what human judgment is” that a person has led a holy life and is now in heaven, said Msgr. Robert J. Sarno, an American who worked for the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints for 38 years until his retirement last year. This is why the miracle in question must have occurred after the death of the proposed saint.

Ralph E. Moore, Jr., one of the organizers of the campaign on behalf of the Six Black American Catholics, notes that the school Mother Lange founded, the Saint Frances Academy, is still operating nearly two centuries later. “After all these years, it’s kind of a miracle, because people didn’t want this to happen,” he said.

The saints do not perform miracles by themselves, according to the teaching of the church, but intercede with God for those who pray to them on earth. It might conjure up the idea of ​​some sort of celestial agent or lobbyist, and in fact Italians use the phrase “santo in paradiso” for a well-connected person able to organize special favors.

But the importance of the saints, Mgr. Sarno said, lies more in their exemplary function. Devotion to these role models is a living relationship in which prayers of intercession have their natural place, as do requests for help from family members.

Daniel Schachle of Dickson, Tenn., Is a member of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, and a salesperson for the insurance branch of the group. He says he draws inspiration for his work from the life of the group’s founder, Reverend Michael McGivney (1852-1890), who provided financial assistance to widows and orphans of immigrant workers in Connecticut in the 19th century and was beatified, the penultimate step toward holiness — in 2020.

“I always thought Father McGivney was with me in my truck when I went from house to house,” Schachle said. “It was not uncommon for me to turn to Father McGivney in times of crisis. Mr Schachle made his biggest request for help in 2015 after he and his wife Michelle, then pregnant with their 13th child, learned the unborn boy had fetal hydrops, a condition that was likely to be fatal since he also had Down syndrome.

Shortly after receiving the news, the couple set off on a week-long pilgrimage to Catholic shrines in Italy, Spain and Portugal. During this time, they prayed to Father McGivney that their son would survive. Upon their return to Tennessee, doctors found the deadly disease was gone. Michael Schachle was born less than two months later, and five years later Pope Francis recognized the event as miraculous.

In rare cases, the Vatican accepts non-medical events – such as multiplying a small amount of rice to feed a hungry crowd, or closing a hatch of a sinking submarine against pressure. of incoming water – as proof of the holiness of those whose help has been called upon. But almost all officially recognized miracles in modern times involve healing from illness or injury.

“When you are sick, you have time to worry and to pray”, Mgr. Sarno said, explaining why it is easier to ascribe a supernatural cause in such cases. The medical treatment also provides abundant documentation for Vatican investigators. To count as a miracle for the purposes of canonization, a cure must be considered inexplicable according to current medical knowledge. The work to determine who belongs to a panel of medical experts in Rome.

“Medicine, science and physicians are essential to the Vatican process of investigating miracles,” writes Jacalyn Duffin, a Canadian medical historian and hematologist who has studied more than 1,400 miracle investigations in the Vatican archives. “Doctors are essential witnesses of science, the polar opposite of religion.

After the medical experts have done their job, theologians must decide whether the healing is due to the intercession of the candidate for canonization, which means that those who prayed for his help did so at the time of healing and that they only prayed to the proposed saint and no one else. Additional prayers to the Virgin Mary, whom Catholics consider the intercessor par excellence, or to Jesus himself are not considered disqualifying.

Only a fraction of the many healings reported by the faithful as possible miracles go through the process to final approval, and many proposed Saints have been waiting decades, if not centuries, for lack of miracles.

At the Mass that opened the petition campaign on behalf of black candidates for holiness, Bishop Bruce Lewandowski, Auxiliary Bishop of Baltimore, urged the congregation to tell others about their accomplishments and pray for their intercession. Recognizing that the process of canonization can be long, the bishop said, “We don’t make saints, God does.

Write to Francis X. Rocca at

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