Religion: The Long Road to Sainthood

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Kateri Tekakwitha is a good example. Her cult grew in upstate New York, where for 200 years after her death local Catholics prayed to her for intercession. But only in 1884 did an Albany priest propose her "cause" to the Vatican, with the hope of canonization. Decades passed in the gathering of evidence of Kateri's "fame of sanctity" and heroic virtues.

Kateri's cause was not presented to the Vatican's Congregation of Rites (now called the Congregation for the Causes of Saints) until 1932. Then it was placed in the hands of a "postulator," whose job is to review all positive evidence, and a "general promoter of the faith," informally known as the devil's advocate, who "challenges the evidence. Kateri survived this trial. In 1943 Pope Pius XII declared her "venerable."

Traditionally, for a venerable to be elevated further requires evidence of two personal miracles for beatification and two more for sainthood. "The miracle is considered a divine sign, an indication that the church is not making a mistake about this person," says a Vatican official. In Kateri's life there was much evidence of saintly living. She was stoned for becoming a Christian, and she seems to have lived out her life in total poverty and chastity. Though local tradition credits her with dozens of miracles, proof is lacking.

Most saintly miracles involve unexpected cures in cases where people have prayed for help and no purely medical relief seems possible. When diagnosis was still crude and effective medical treatment rare, it was easier to claim miraculous recoveries. But in these days of wonder drugs and chemotherapy, "miracles" are checked out in detail with teams of physicians and are harder to come by. This is one reason why Kateri's cause languished for 37 years before beatification.

In recent years, too, the Vatican has been re-examining its lists of saints, removing many names from the calendar of saints' days observed during the liturgical year. Some were dropped because of doubts that they ever existed, among them such favorites as St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers, and St. Valentine. The new calendar issued a decade ago includes only 58 saints important to Catholics the world over. Others are "optional," on the basis of local loyalties. Says a Vatican official: "St. Patrick is fine in Ireland but holds little interest for the Cambodians."

But in the 20th century, any world church still needs heroic examples of saintliness and the power of prayer, especially in countries outside Europe. It also needs saints chosen from the laity, to serve as role models in a time of doubt and secularism. Typically, though his cause has not yet been introduced in Rome, beatification proceedings are under way for Dr. Tom Dooley, the physician who operated a medical mission in Laos from 1956 until his death from cancer in 1961.

The search for Third World saints has apparently led to timely canonizations: the sanctification of the 22 19th century Ugandan Martyrs was speeded up because Africa needs saints badly. One of the five beatified last week, just in time for John Paul's current visit to Brazil, was José de Anchieta, a 16th century Jesuit known as "the apostle of Brazil."

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