The Vatican will next month formally issue an instruction clarifying norms for the process of beatifications and canonizations.

Called Sanctorum Mater (Mother of the Saints), the document will be addressed to bishops and directed at those involved in the first stages of the canonization process.

The aim of the instruction is to help ensure key stages of a cause are subjected to rigorous scrutiny by postulators and diocesan officials.

“The goal of this document is clear and precise,” said Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, in an interview with the television news agency Rome Reports Jan. 14. “We want to promote closer collaboration between the Holy See and local bishops concerning the immense and delicate process of canonization and beatification.”

The Portuguese cardinal stressed the document doesn’t include new rules and merely clarifies Pope John Paul II’s 1983 norms.

“It underlines certain truths that can always be better reflected upon,” the cardinal said. “It’s always good to insist on the fundamentals. Like the liturgy, we remind ourselves of many truths that we already know, but it’s good we don’t forget them.”

A Vatican official, speaking to the Register on condition of anonymity, said the document is primarily a “preventive” measure.

Said the official, “It’s a way of planning ahead, foreseeing a continued large number of causes.”

Laity Are Key

The instruction, which is understood to have Pope Benedict XVI’s strong support, focuses on two main areas: the earliest stage of beatification, otherwise known as the “fame of sanctity” phase, and the authenticity of miracles.

The first phase is considered the most important in a beatification process because it is the faithful who essentially initiate a cause.

“If a person does not have a clear fame of sanctity in a local community, among the faithful, then the local bishop — even though he wants to — cannot start a process of beatification,” Cardinal Saraiva said. “This is very important, because it means that it is up to the faithful of a diocese to tell the bishop that this layperson, this priest, in our opinion was a saint.”

The second part of the instruction stresses the great importance of miracles and the need to treat them with “great objectivity.” In an advance copy of the instruction obtained by the Register, it states that in the past 20 years, “problematic elements” have appeared in the investigation of miracles.

Cardinal Saraiva said miracles must be examined with great care.

“It must be clear that a person recovered because of a miracle,” he said, “and the local bishop must look at [that particular person’s] medical record before, as much as after, their recovery.”

Regarding martyrs, the Vatican is asking for care in verifying that a person gave his life because of odium fidei (hatred for the faith), and not, for example, for political reasons.

The news of the instruction comes after the Church has beatified and canonized an unprecedented number of holy men and women in the last 30 years. Pope John Paul II declared 1,345 blesseds and 483 saints during his pontificate — more than all previous popes combined.

Pope Benedict XVI has canonized 14 saints and allowed 559 beatifications, including 498 priests and religious martyred during the Spanish Civil War.

But Cardinal Saraiva rejects accusations that the Church has become a “saint factory.”

Speaking to the Register last year, the cardinal said the Church’s fundamental role is to promote holiness. “They are models of sanctity to the faithful of the world [and] there cannot be too many,” he said.

He also stressed that it is God, not the Church, who makes saints and recalled that Pope John Paul, when asked why he canonized so many saints, replied that the answer lies with God, not him or the Church.

Cardinal Newman

Currently, 2,200 processes are being scrutinized by the worldwide Church, 350 of which are under investigation at the Vatican.

One is that of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the 19th-century British theologian who converted from Anglicanism.

Cardinal Saraiva has said he hopes the cardinal would be beatified very soon. The Vatican is still awaiting confirmation of an alleged miracle but a Vatican source said that “all the hard work has been done.”

According to Msgr. Roderick Strange, author of a new book entitled John Henry Newman: A Mind Alive, Cardinal Newman’s beatification would draw people to great insights that are highly relevant today.

“He shows us the way of addressing some of those issues,” said Msgr. Strange, “like the importance of our approach to ecumenism, the importance of the laity in the Church, the handling of issues like infallible authority. … If he’s beatified, they may start looking at these issues more carefully.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.