Making Saints: What Goes Into Causes That Investigate Holy Lives

More Than 70 Canonization Causes Under Way

(photo: Courtesy of the causes)

Mother Angelica’s recent passing has put a certain word on many people’s lips: “saint.” Following her death on Easter Sunday, even Pope Francis said, “She’s in heaven.”

Whatever the truth of that statement, no formal declaration can be made by the Church until her beatification process officially starts. That can’t happen for five years, and then it will take years of compiling everything she ever wrote, said or did, interviewing those who knew her, collating all of that information, sending it to Rome, gathering a miracle performed by God through her intercession and having the Pope give his approval. And those are just a few of the steps.

If she receives beata status, she will join Blessed Miriam Teresa Demjanovich as the only beati native to the United States of America (unless you count Puerto Rico, in which case Blessed Carlos Rodriguez Santiago also qualifies).

If she reaches canonization, she will join five other U.S.-born saints, all of whom are women. It’s a journey to which more than 70 men and women with some American connection are being subjected.

And as those involved in these efforts can attest, that journey is remarkably strenuous.

As the cause for Dorothy Day continues, some causes can’t even get off the ground. Consider Benedictine Sister Mary Annella Zervas, a religious who experienced tremendous suffering in union with Christ, dying at age 26 in 1926. Her last words were, “My Jesus, mercy.” Despite two reputed apparitions and many purported miracles — not to mention thousands of pilgrims visiting her grave — her cause has never been introduced.

Then there are the stalled causes. Take Franciscan friars and Servants of God Magín Catalá and Leo Heinrichs. A near contemporary of St. Junípero Serra, Father Catalá’s cause was introduced 60 years before Father Serra’s. Father Heinrichs was martyred in Denver in 1903. Both causes are moribund. No one seems to know why.

Most other processes, however, are more active. For instance, there is Servant of God Father Paul Wattson, convert and founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement. Although the archdiocesan phase of his cause began just last September, vice postulator Father Joseph DiMauro, of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, said the writings of this “outstanding example of the New Evangelization” have already been forwarded to Rome for review by the Vatican’s saint-making office, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

Pope Benedict XVI declared Bishop Frederic Baraga “Venerable” in 2012. Known as the “Snowshoe Priest,” Bishop Baraga, who died in 1868, was known for his tremendous efforts on behalf of Catholics and outreach to Indians in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, going to heroic lengths to offer the sacraments.

Said Lenora McKeen, executive director of the Bishop Baraga Association, “For my work, I drive to all the 15 counties. I have the luxury of a car. I have heat in the winter, air conditioning in the summer. I have my coffee cup beside me. He traveled that same landscape on foot and on snowshoes. If something was needed, he would go. A young girl was dying who had not been baptized, and he wasn’t about to let her die without being baptized. He walked 57 miles to baptize her.”

The benchmark of whether someone is definitively in heaven has always been whether his or her intercession produces answered prayers, particularly for some miracle, usually an unexplainable healing from some disease. Bishop Baraga’s cause submitted such a miracle, but the medical commission charged with investigating its validity sent it back, requesting additional information.

The process of Venerable Angeline McCrory is in a similar predicament. Carmelite Sister Patricia Margaret Rawdon, coordinator of the Mother Angeline Society and one who knew Mother Angeline, says the society thought they had a solid miracle, the healing of a baby in utero. But Rome rejected it, the nun related, because the cause hadn’t put forth “definitive proof that there wasn’t a misdiagnosis in the beginning.”

“We keep praying for just one tiny little miracle. That’s all we need,” she said, hopeful.

While this can be frustrating for those wanting to see their special person raised to the altars, at least one person doesn’t necessarily see this as a bad thing.

“We tell people, ‘If you received a favor or a small miracle, praise and thank God,’” said Sister of Charity Mary Canavan, vice postulator for Blessed Miriam Teresa’s cause. “Don’t worry that it’s not going to be the miracle that brings about canonization, because it’s much more important that what they need from God be granted.”

The necessity of getting an authentic, rejection-proof miracle shows why causes have to be so careful and exacting in every detail. McKeen observed, “A cause needs to make sure they’ve really turned over every stone, so they can say, ‘Yes, this person is a servant of God and does meet the mandate for sainthood.’”

There are as many ways of funding a process as there are potential saints. For Father Wattson’s cause, the friars rely on donations and sales of his biography. Father DiMauro says the Servant of God “believed God would provide, and we’re working under the same principle.” Blessed Miriam Teresa’s cause follows a similar course. The Baraga Association, on the other hand, sells items costing between $1.50 and $34. Those offered by the Mother Angeline Society range from $4 to $24.

Those trying to promote causes in the wings, such as Sister Annella’s, on the other hand, are just happy with getting their candidate exposure: Promoters believe their potential saints will lead people closer to Christ and his Church. What Bernie Revering, who helps promote Sister Annella, says of his candidate, the others would say of theirs: “Our country and world need [her example because she shows] each of us, too, can be saints in the little, everyday things of life, and that through God’s sufficient grace, our loving, joyful response can not only be our way to Jesus but can be offered to help others find the mercy of God.”

Brian O’Neel writes from 

Coatesville, Pennsylvania.


HOLY LIVES. Clockwise from top left: Blessed Miriam Teresa Demjanovich, Sister Mary Annella Zervas, Venerable Angeline McCrory and Bishop Frederic Baraga. Courtesy of the causes