When Pope Francis announced that he was going to declare sainthood for Junipero Serra during a flight to Manila in January 2015, some people took it as an impromptu decision. And while the announcement might have been made on the spur of the moment, the process that led to it was anything but.
When the Catholic Church declares someone a saint (including Junipero Serra), a long, deliberate protocol must be followed. The aim is to reach a maximum certainty about the worthiness of the person canonized (declared a saint). But worthiness for what?
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a compendium of official beliefs, a saint is “a disciple who has lived a life of exemplary fidelity to the Lord” and someone who “practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace.” In short, someone who lived a Christian life that went above and beyond the norm. For Serra to be declared a saint, the Catholic Church had to affirm that he lived up to that standard. So how is that done? There are seven steps.
1. The person must have died. It sounds obvious, but no matter how great a reputation a person might have while alive, he or she must be dead for five years before the process can even begin (Serra died in 1784). After those five years have passed, and if there is still demand to see the person officially marked for sainthood — sometimes a person’s good reputation vanishes after death — the bishop of the diocese (the Church jurisdiction) where he or she died petitions the Vatican to open the process for sainthood.
2. Documentation is gathered. If the Vatican gives its approval, the bishop organizes a commission to gather all the possible documentation about the person’s life, including oral and written testimonies of the people that knew the proposed saint. This is in order ascertain whether the person lived a life of “heroic virtue” or if instead he or she was a fraud, or just a nice person. The process can take months or even years. After the bishop’s tribunal concludes that there is enough evidence to show that the person truly stood apart from others, the documentation and a summary are sent to Rome. In Serra’s case, investigators gathered over 7,500 pages of documentation.
3. A Vatican a commission examines all the documentation and gives its vote on whether to proceed with the process. If the vote is affirmative, the result is sent to the Pope, who either approves or vetoes the decision. Once approved, the person can be known as “Venerable” or “Servant of God” (“Venerable Junipero Serra” or “Servant of God Junipero Serra”).
4. A miracle. From time immemorial, Catholics turned to saints to ask for special favors from God. In order to advance to the next step, there must be evidence of a miracle as a result of prayers directed to the Servant of God. Once someone reports a miracle, it is again up to the local bishop to document and verify it. The bishop sets up a scientific commission to examine the miracle and rule out any natural explanations.
5. Papal approval. If the bishop’s commission confirms the miracle, he then forwards the outcome to Rome. The Vatican sets up its own commission to investigate the alleged miracle. If the Roman commission approves the miracle, the decision is sent to the Pope. If the Pope approves the commission’s decision, he “beatifies” the person, who receives the title of “Blessed” (“Blessed Junipero Serra”). Pope John Paul II beatified Junipero Serra in 1988 after the commission affirmed that a nun who had been cured of lupus was healed thanks to Serra’s intercession.
6. Second miracle. In order to finalize the canonization, the Church usually looks for a second miracle. The process is the same as the prior step — a local commission investigates any purported miracles and if they approve one, the Vatican follows up with its own investigation.
7. Formal declaration of sainthood. Once a second miracle has been approved, the Pope formally declares the person a saint at a special public ceremony. Catholics around the world are then authorized to venerate the saint, i.e., ask for his intercession in prayer. In the case of Junipero Serra, Pope Francis waived the requirement of a second miracle, because he believed the friar’s personal holiness had already been demonstrated.
The takeaway? The Catholic Church takes its time and does its due diligence in declaring someone a saint, including St. Junipero.