VATICAN CITY – The slight differences between a beatification and a canonization are easy to miss, especially when one pope beatifies another pope.
Just three weeks before Pope Benedict XVI was to beatify Pope John Paul II, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments issued a decree designed, in part, to maintain the distinction.
The decree dealt with one of the three main differences: the number and location of dioceses that can hold annual public liturgical celebrations in the holy person’s honor.
The other two differences are less noticeable and they deal with who ceremonially requests the pope to act and the level of papal authority involved in the proclamation.
During a beatification ceremony, the bishop of the diocese where the person dies asks that the candidate be declared blessed; at a canonization, the prefect of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes speaks in the name of the whole church and asks that the candidate be declared a saint.
Even less visible, but more important, is the fact that “papal infallibility is involved” when a person is declared a saint, said Cardinal Agostino Vallini, the papal vicar of Rome.
Beatification is an “administrative act” by which the pope allows a candidate for sainthood to be venerated publicly in places closely associated with his or her life and ministry; the place may be as small as one city, although usually it is the diocese where the person lived or died. In the case of Pope John Paul, his Oct. 22 feast day is entered automatically into the calendars of the Diocese of Rome and all the dioceses of his native Poland.
A canonization, on the other hand, is a formal papal decree that the candidate was holy and is now in heaven with God; the decree allows public remembrance of the saint at liturgies throughout the church. It also means that churches can be dedicated to the person without special Vatican permission.
Beatifications only became common in the early 1600s after the Vatican centralized the sainthood process. The centralized process meant dioceses could wait many years or decades to celebrate one of their own as a saint, so to acknowledge the local devotion to the candidate, the popes would give the candidate the title blessed and allow limited devotion.
For hundreds of years, the most obvious difference between a canonization and beatification was the fact that the pope personally presided only at a canonization Mass.
Those lines began to blur during the pontificate of Pope Paul VI, who decided to celebrate the beatification in 1971 of Polish Franciscan Father Maximilian Kolbe, who was martyred in a Nazi concentration camp.
Pope John Paul II kept up the practice of personally presiding over both beatifications and canonizations – and he did so hundreds of times all over the world.
Pope Benedict XVI, responding to pleas from some Vatican officials, bishops and theologians, tried to help people actually see the difference between a beatification and a canonization by presiding personally only when a new saint was being proclaimed.
For more than five years, he maintained that practice. But in September, he led the beatification Mass in England for John Henry Newman. The second beatification of his pontificate will be the proclamation of Blessed John Paul.
Procedurally, a miracle – literally – is needed for a blessed to be declared a saint.
For beatification, the Vatican requires proof of a miracle attributed to the candidate’s intercession, unless the candidate was martyred for his or her faith.
The second miracle – the one needed for canonization – must take place after the beatification ceremony and is seen as God’s final seal of approval on the church’s proclamation.
“In addition to reassuring us that the servant of God lives in heaven in communion with God, miracles are the divine confirmation of the judgment expressed by church authorities about the virtuous life” lived by the candidate, Pope Benedict said in a speech to members of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes in 2006.