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Causes of Beatification and Canonization

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The beginning of a Cause of Beatification and Canonization

I would like to immediately clear up a question that is often asked of me: some people have the mistaken belief that beginning a cause of this nature means to beatify someone; consequently they then hesitate to take such an initiative. We must however keep in mind that to start a “process” does not mean anything more than “proceeding” in gathering evidence (oral testimonies and written documents) that will then construct the material necessary for discussion so that the supreme roman judges – we speak about Cardinals and the Holy Father – so that they can give a founded judgement on the opportunity of beatifying the Servant of God. We can deduce from what has been previously said that being hesitant in Opening a Cause damages the Cause, being increasingly with time, the risk of losing evidence in particular the death of the best witnesses.

In order to gather evidence, a special tribunal is assigned, the members are named ‘ad hoc’ by the Bishop; therefore, as soon as their work is finished and the acts are sent to Rome their roles are officially finished.
By express and single nomination of the Ordinary Judge, that is the Bishop of the Diocese where the Cause will be opened, the tribunal is formed by the following members: the Episcopal Delegate (who must be a priest), he takes the place of the Bishop and therefore monitors the application of Canon Law in merit; the promoter of justice ( he also has to be a priest) he usually questions the witness; an actual notary (does not have to be a priest), who is often supported by an adjunct notary to guarantee the presence of at least one of them, this person authenticates the acts and writes up this legal documentation,  and the copyist of the acts: this duty – like the notary – can be carried out by any member of the faithful.
In helping these members of the tribunal carry out their responsibilities they are assisted by two special commissions, in which the members are also named by the Bishop. The first is the Historical Commission, usually formed by three expert members in historical studies – archivists, who have the task to gather the pertinent documents regarding the Servant of God in all archives in which they feel could have or lead to documentation. At the end, they have to demonstrate the results of their work by turning in a joint report. The second is a Theological Commission, which is formed by two theologians who will have the task to analyze all of the published writings of the Servant of God in order to verify that there is nothing in these against faith, morals and good habits; demonstrating the main elements of their distinctive spirituality. The members of the Theological Commission unlike the Historical Commission write up individual reports.

Turning now to define the name of the Promoters of a Cause of Beatification, i.e. those who take the initiative to promote the Cause, who financially sustain it and move it forward to the desired destination of Canonization, are called “Actors”, coming from “action”, “agrere” et i.p.. Those who have understood their right to accept the sanctity of a Servant of God, make use of a Postulator – a figure who can be compared to an attorney in civil law – takes care of the interests of the Actors in front of all ecclesiastic tribunals, and if he is a Postulator accepted by Rome then he can also represent them at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

The competent Bishop to instruct a Cause of Beatification is the Bishop of the place where the Servant of God ended their earthly journey. If he , for a valid reason (staff shortage,  discomfort of the place due to lack of services, preconceived hostility towards similar Causes in parts of the population, etc…) understands that they cannot take on such a feat, can ask another Bishop to carry out the Cause in his stead (“competentia fori”). In that case they will both have to write to Rome, the one justifying his withdrawal and the other’s acceptance: if the reasons are believed to be valid, the  Congregation for the Cause’s of Saints will release the decree for the transfer of competence, allowing the process to be carried out in the substituting Diocese. 

Only after the question of competence has been cleared up, the Postulator may write the Supplex Libellus, a letter formally requesting the Bishop to form a tribunal, putting into action all of the necessary procedures for the proper conduct of a process of beatification. Before giving his official approval the Bishop will have to fulfill specific requirements. The first of these is that of asking Rome if there are any objections against the sanctity of the life or the proof of heroic virtue of the Servant of God in question – the so called nihil obstat – he then has to ask his brother Bishops of the Episcopal Conference, at least the regional one, approval of the initiative that he is about to take.

It should be kept in mind that if the Servant of God for which the Cause is being promoted is part of an order or a religious Congregation, no members of this order may have an active role in the tribunal. Nor can they be part of either of the two commissions that we spoke of previously; however one member from the order may make up part of the Historical Commission, lending a valid hand in the research of documents for that specific religious family.

The preparation of the list of witnesses to be interrogated is the duty of the Postulator. Temporal extension is the first thing that should be taken into account when making up this list. The more witnesses we have who can offer direct knowledge of the life of the Servant of God the better guarantee of success the Cause will have. This is not only valid for the reconstruction of the life, but also for the proof of the degree in which each virtue was exercised: a long communion of life, with direct observations of various behaviours in different circumstances, and the best way to evaluate the sanctity of the Servant of God. 

Well aware of this reality, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints encourages the interrogation of elderly witnesses as soon as possible, in order to not lose any important proof (“ne pereant probationes”). The members of the Historical Commission will also be witnesses; they are not to answer the questions from the general questionnaire, but to answer to a few questions linked to the work they carry out. They will be called directly by the tribunal and therefore qualified as “testes ex officio”.

It is good to keep in mind that the oath the witnesses takes to tell the truth, at both the beginning and the end of their depositions, represents a serious warning to answer truthfully, and guarantees the correspondence between their words and the truth. Keep in mind that there are usually several dozen witnesses, therefore with the responses everyone gives on the certain facts; it is easy to pick out any false declarations.  Before the Bishop carries out the opening of the Cause he must issue an edict where he announces the formal beginning of the Cause inviting people who have something to say – both in favour and against the Servant of God – to present themselves as witnesses. Including those who have writings of the Servant of God they are invited to hand them in at this time. Since 1917 the Code of Canon Law set the time in which a Cause for Beatification must start at 30 years. Not enough is done to respect this deadline – for reasons that have already been stated – however if this time frame is surpassed a proper investigation will have to be carried out that leads to conclude that the wait was not due to wilful misconduct, fraud or culpable negligence. 

Regarding the economic aspect, canonical legislation does not set precise amounts, honorariums or special fees to be given to people outside of the dicasteries in Causes of Beatification and Canonization; rather they establish the exact amounts of the costs of the various discussions that take place within. It is precisely for this reason that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints does not compete for payments outside of it, therefore does not indicate the increase of the fees mentioned above. The reason for this can easily be understood by reflecting on contingent factors like the following: differences between one Cause to another are great, and no one can know, in advance, if our dicastery will ask for supplemental theological, medical and or canonical investigations.  It is also good to keep in mind that long and complex translations are often required and printing costs still vary widely depending on the length of the Cause, etc.., etc. .. It is for these reasons that, wisely, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints requires that each Cause rely on its own economic fund, from which the Postulator can withdraw the funds necessary to cover the costs that arise from time to time. It goes without saying that the Postulator must be ready to present the Actors with a Financial Statement of income and expenditures anytime asked of him.