Vatican Saint-Maker Tells What it Takes to Make the Cut

Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, prefect for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, is known for his good-natured Portuguese temperament. Or perhaps it is the satisfaction of spending so much of his time with the saints.

Under Pope John Paul II, the Congregation has beatified 996 men and women and canonized another 447 — which is comparable to the beatification and canonization numbers of the four previous centuries combined.

The cardinal recently spoke with Register correspondent Sabrina Arena Ferrisi.

Ferrisi: How has your background helped you in your current position?

Though my background is very diversified, I believe it is complementary to my current job. I taught theology and worked on the formation of priests. This was a great preparation for the process used in the cause of saints. In all of our cases, we have an investigation on three different levels: theological, historical and scientific. We look at, respectively, the virtues, the historical facts, and our doctors examine the miracles.

My background prepared me particularly in the area of evaluating such things. Holiness is essential for the Church. Though we often speak of holiness, in my dicastery [Vatican department] we actually find holiness incarnated in the lives of these servants of God. We see how many Christians really took the Lord's Gospel seriously.

One of John Paul II's fundamental objectives is to give greater value to holiness. That's why he attributes great importance to beatifications and canonizations. They propose real models of holiness which challenge society itself.

During Pope John Paul II's pontificate, there have been numerous beatifications and canonizations. But the majority are still European religious men and women. Why are there not more lay people — who can serve as models for Catholics who are married, with children, with “ordinary jobs”?

This is an excellent question. First, we have to look at the geography of holiness — and this has already changed substantially. John Paul II has made saints in many countries. For example, on Oct. 1, he canonized 120 Chinese martyrs. Prior to that, he canonized Mother Katharine Drexel, an American, and before that, he canonized Sister Bakita, an African. All represent different continents. Holiness doesn't look at geography or borders. Holiness can flower anywhere. It is universal.

About there being less lay people canonized than religious, maybe in the past it was this way. But John Paul II has canonized hundreds of lay people. The exact number of lay beatifications are 215 and lay canonizations are 245. Many people don't know this.

I am very happy about it because lay people represent 98% of the Catholic Church. It also affirms Vatican II's universal call to holiness. The Church today needs lay witnesses to the faith. We need models of people who live in society.

We are currently working on the cause of an Italian couple, the Quattrocchi's, for beatification. We are also examining the cause of St. Thérèse of Lisieux's parents.

The reaction of the Chinese government to the canonizations of 120 Chinese martyrs, on October 1, was very negative. In fact, relations between the Holy See and China have worsened since then. Can you explain their reaction?

A beatification or canonization never has political significance for us in the Congregation. We went ahead with the Chinese martyrs because they were witnesses to the faith. They showed great heroism, to the point of spilling their blood in order to defend that faith. It was not meant as a provocation, and we never thought about the political problems that could result.

The reaction of the Chinese government does not influence our relations [between the Holy See and China] as much as you would think. We hope relations will get better. From what I know, Catholics in China received the news of the canonizations very well. They were, in fact, very inspired.

What exactly is the role of cardinals in saint-making?

The congregation has what we call “ordinary assemblies.” This is where our 30 cardinal members come together in a parliamentary fashion. They examine all the historical, medical and theological issues of each case. Then they give their evaluation on all these levels and reach a conclusion. If it is in favor of beatification, they present it to the Holy Father. It is Pope John Paul II who ultimately decides on the beatification and establishes a date.

It seems that most of the beatifications and canonizations that have taken place under Pope John Paul II have been martyrs. How can you explain this?

A great deal depends on the importance that John Paul II attributes to martyrs. The history of the Catholic Church is, in fact, a history of martyrs. I often say that the Church has never taken off the red tunic of martyrdom since her birth. It has been a constant. Also, we have to remember that John Paul II comes from a country with a history of Catholic martyrs.

Martyrs are a treasure for the Church, a precious inheritance. Their courage is not explainable in natural terms. It is supernatural. They stimulate us to be ready to give our lives. Today there is the tendency to live without sacrifice and live in comfort. The martyrs tell us that life is not a matter of pleasure, but of living supernatural values. Their importance to the Church is immense.

It is said that the cause of the Spanish martyrs took a very long time for political reasons. The cause had been brought up under Pope Paul VI, but he said No. Instead, Pope John Paul II has had no problem with it. Can you explain?

The Spanish martyrs has taken a very long time because it was a very delicate case. We had to study it well to avoid political interpretations. But also because we had to study it within the context of the martyrs themselves, and make sure that these people did not give up their life for political reasons but to defend their faith.

Some people have criticized the Vatican for what they claim is an “inflation” of beatifications and canonizations. How do you respond to this?

I respond that in good things, there can never be an inflation! In fact, we should have more beatifications and canonizations. Saints are not determined by computers. Saints come when God sends them to us.

How many canonizations and beatifications are on line at this moment?

Over 2000 cases altogether. 200 of these are at a very advanced stage.

The Pope shortened the normal time for a cause for Mother Teresa. What's the significance of this action?

According to canon law, five years must pass before you can open a cause for sainthood. The Pope made a big exception for Mother Teresa. After two and a half years, the process for her cause began. It is in the diocesan phase right now in Calcutta. It's hard because she didn't just live in one place, but all over the world. So we have people investigating her life in many different countries. We even sent an official from our congregation to Calcutta for two weeks to conduct research. This shows how important this cause is for us.

As a Portuguese, did the beatifications of the two shepherd children at Fatima, Francisco and Jacinta, have a special impact on you? And what about the “third secret” — did you expect it to be revealed?

The beatification was a beautiful experience! I consider it a privilege that it happened during my time here as prefect of this congregation. On the 13th of March last year, I was on the Italian TV program “Portaportese” live from Fatima. They had Giulio Andreotti [former President of Italy], Vittorio Messori [editor of Crossing the Threshold of Hope] and Franco Zeffirelli [director of the movie Jesus of Nazareth].

Zeffirelli asked me, “What's in the Third Secret?” And I said, “Nothing extraordinary that we do not already know.” Andreotti said that it had to be extraordinary, or else we would know it. I said that I was certain it did not contain anything apocalyptic, and let's wait until tomorrow.

The next day the Pope revealed it. I wanted to call everyone back and say ‘I told you so’!

There was much negative publicity on the canonization of Pope Pius IX. How do you feel about this experience? How did the Pope take it?

The Pope has lived this event with complete serenity.

The interpretation of history is not always as clear as one would like. Pius IX lived in a different time, when the masons were strong, and there was a large Jewish population in Rome.

People have said that Pope Pius IX was anti-Jew. But he opened the ghettos of the Jews. He gave rights to Jews that they didn't have. Critics use this as an opportunity to attack the Church.

But the Church always goes with the truth. We have great tranquility. Those who study history know the truth. It's very clear.

Pope Francis waves to pilgrims during his Angelus address August 30, 2020.

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