It is important to note that there are many more blessed in heaven than the Church has officially “canonized,” or made saints.
The solemnity of all saints is the Church’s way of saying there are countless faithful in Heaven. On November 1 we celebrate this glorious feast. Anyone who has died in the state of grace (which means as a friend of God) and has been admitted either directly or indirectly (via purgatory) into heaven is a saint.
We all know great and holy people in our lives—whether family members, colleagues, neighbors, or church members—who lived exemplary lives. They may not have been formally declared by the church to be saints, but this in no way negates the fact that they are enjoying the bliss of eternal life in heaven.
The official process of determining who is canonized (named a saint) is long and tedious, since the Church must be extremely scrupulous when investigating a candidate for sainthood. The process begins on the local level, where the holy person lived, and it doesn’t start until five years after death—though this requirement can be dispensed.
It could be introduced to the bishop of the diocese by the pastor of the parish, the people the holy person lived with or, if a member of a religious community like the Dominicans, by the superior. At this local level, if the bishop accepts the known facts of the candidate’s holiness, then he or she is declared “venerable” and a formal process of examining the life of this person commences. In many instances, the process stays at this level. Much time, energy, and even money is needed to carry out a lengthy investigation.
Once proof of holiness has been established, a miracle must be attributed to the holy person’s intercession to God. This miracle has to be authenticated by doctors, theologians, and, at times, scientists. If it is beyond a doubt that it is a miracle, the next stage is beatification.
During this process, as in the previous, the holy person’s writings and the people he or she was in contact with are interviewed. Beatification takes place through the pope or at the local level through a bishop. The holy person is called “blessed,” can have a statue erected, and a feast can be placed on the liturgical calendar. Yet it is not an infallible statement as further investigation is required. Another miracle of intercession is needed. Scientific research into the miracle has to be performed. Upon a positive conclusion, the pope can canonize the person to be a saint for all times.
An exception to this lengthy process is a martyr, one who witnesses to the faith and dies for Christ. Since martyrdom is so rare and such a total sign of one’s fidelity to God, lengthy investigations and verifying miracles are not required for canonization. The only requirement is that the martyr is specifically killed because of his Catholic Christian faith and not for any other reason (political, racial, ethnic, etc.).
Unlike terrorists, who pervert the concept of martyrdom, Christianity does not consider those who kill innocent victims to be true martyrs. Martyrs must be victims, not perpetrators, and the reason for their death must be their refusal to deny their religion.