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Gaetano Errico

On Oct. 12, Pope Benedict XVI canonized four new saints to the Catholic liturgy: 19th-Century Italian priest Gaetano Errico; Mary Bernard (Verena) Bütler, a Swiss nun and missionary in Latin America who died in 1924; Alfonsa of the Immaculate Conception, a nun who who died in 1946 and is the first named female saint from India; and Narcisa de Jesús Martillo Morán, a pious laywoman from Ecuador who died in 1869. In the Catholic faith, only God can make a saint; these four are among those who "have emerged as individuals who can light the way ahead," as the Modern Catholic Encyclopedia puts it. But the means by which these saints are identified — and by whom — has varied over the history of the church.

The first Catholics revered as saints were martyrs who died under Roman persecution in the first centuries after Jesus Christ was born. These martyrs were honored as saints almost instantaneously after their deaths, as Catholics who had sacrificed their lives in the name of God. Over the next few centuries, however, sainthood was extended to those who had defended the faith and led pious lives. With the criteria for canonization not as strict, the number of saints soared by the sixth and seventh centuries. Bishops stepped in to oversee the process, and around 1200, Pope Alexander III, outraged over the proliferation, decreed that only the pope had the power to determine who could be identified as a saint. (Alexander was reportedly angered about one saint in particular whom he believed had been killed in an alcohol-fueled brawl and was therefore not worthy of canonization.)

In the 17th century, the Vatican's standards for sainthood were formalized. A non-martyr would need to have performed four posthumous miracles, usually spontaneous healings. (Today, the church requires a team of doctors to verify their veracity and prove that miraculous healings were not the result of modern medicine.) The process included two major steps: beatification, the pope's recognition that a person is worthy of consideration, which begins a lengthy investigation process; and canonization, the pope's formal recognition that a person is truly a saint. In each case the argument for sainthood would be rebutted by a Devil's Advocate, a person appointed by the Church to argue against the case for sainthood. Before becoming pontiff, Pope Benedict XIV was one of the foremost Devil's Advocates of the 18th century. It wasn't until 1983 that a revised Code of Canon Law was published that included reforms to the canonization process begun in 1913. Under Pope John Paul II the procedures for investigating and recognizing a saint were streamlined, the Devil's Advocate position was eliminated and the number of miracles required for beatification and canonization was reduced to two.

Over his 27-year tenure, Pope John Paul II named more saints than all his predecessors combined, beatifying more than 1,300 people and canonizing nearly 500. He fast-tracked Mother Theresa's canonization, and made a distinct effort to identify saints in Africa and Asia. In 2000, much to the chagrin of the communist government there, John Paul II canonized the first saints in China, naming 87 Chinese citizens and 33 foreign missionaries who had died in the country between 1648 and 1930. He also named the first saint from Brazil, home to more Catholics than any other country. Many within the Catholic church disapproved of the mass canonizations, which one critic calling the pope's actions "Vatican marketing decisions."

But at Pope John Paul II's funeral in 2005, those gathered at St. Peter's Basilica shouted "Santo subito!" — Sainthood now! The current pope, Benedict XVI, began the beatification process for John Paul II within a month of his death, waiving the five-year waiting period usually required between a candidate's death and the beatification process.

Early this year, the Vatican announced it would make the procedures to name saints more rigorous. The latest canonizations bring to 18 the number of saints named so far in Pope Benedict XVI's papacy. "For all of Catholic history, the saints have been a central part of Catholic spirituality," says James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of My Life with the Saints. They are, he says, like "elder brothers and sisters — people who help you along."