June 2, 2005

‘Santo Subito’

On Friday, April 8, 2005, I was in St. Peter’s Basilica vested and waiting for the procession of the cardinals to begin for the Funeral Mass of Pope John Paul II. Behind me, in the so-called "order of precedence" in which cardinals are lined up for ceremonies, was Lubomyr Cardinal Husar, the Archbishop of Lviv in the Ukraine. He is a warm, cheerful shepherd of souls who has unfortunately been losing his eyesight over the past few years. Thus it was for the three weeks that we were together in Rome, we worked out an arrangement whereby he would hold on to me when we went up and down stairs and I would steer him in the right direction when we were marching in procession.

As we settled into our assigned places for the Funeral Mass, a cardinal from Germany who was seated on the other side of Cardinal Husar exclaimed in a kind of stage whisper, "Look at all of those signs," and added, "That’s quite a message."

"What do the signs say?" Cardinal Husar asked me.

"’Santo Subito’," I replied. ("A Saint Right Away.")

Cardinal Husar turned to the German cardinal and remarked, "Yes, indeed, that is quite a message, and a very clear message as well."


The next day newspapers throughout Rome and across the world ran photographs of the signs in the piazza; and from that time on, people have been wondering if "A Saint Right Away" is a likely forecast as regards the canonization of Pope John Paul II. Would his successor raise him to the altar immediately, as the crowd in the piazza was hoping? Perhaps a bit of an explanation might be in order.

"Right Away" would certainly seem to be unrealistic. However, this past May 13, it became altogether evident that things would move ahead more speedily than usual. For on that day, in a Mass with the clergy of Rome in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, our new Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, announced that in the case of his predecessor he was dispensing from the norm whereby a process for canonization may not begin until at least five years after the death of the person in question. The process, he decided, was at least to start "subito."


And quite a process it is.

It is undertaken by a bishop usually in the diocese where the candidate for canonization was born or lived most of his or her adult life. The bishop is ordinarily moved to act either because requested to do so by a group or groups of the faithful or because a special veneration ("cult") of the candidate has begun on its own.

The first duty of the bishop is to name a "postulator" whose duty it is to investigate the life and virtues of the individual under consideration, who from that point on is to be known as a "Servant of God." The postulator takes testimony regarding the Servant of God, personally or through others, from witnesses in each and every location in which the Servant of God lived and worked and accumulates all of the Servant of God’s writings-published and unpublished, even private letters, if any are available. Moreover, if the Servant of God is allegedly a martyr, the postulator gathers all the information he can about this; and if there are said to have been miracles through the intercession of the Servant of God, he puts together whatever information he can assemble about them as well.

Finally, the postulator collects everything into however many volumes are necessary and submits them to the bishop for his consideration. The bishop takes counsel with theological advisors and, if he concludes that the matter should be pursued, sends the volumes and his written judgment of the case to Rome, to an office of the Roman Curia that is known as the Congregation for the Causes (Cases) of Saints.

The Congregation is headed by a Cardinal Prefect (the current incumbent is from Portugal), a Secretary and an Under-Secretary, the three of whom direct the activities of officials known as "relators." These individuals study the volumes sent to Rome by the bishop, prepare historical backgrounds about the Servant of God, and work with theologians and experts of all kinds, especially medical experts when there is question of miraculous cures and such.

During the Roman process, another official of the congregation, known as the "promotor of faith," is involved at every step along the way, ensuring that all relevant norms are being followed and assisting the cardinals who constitute the congregation in their studying of the case. Of special concern, of course, are miracles thought to have been wrought through the intercession of the Servant of God, each of which is investigated in the most precise and detailed manner.

When all of this is completed, the entire file is brought to the attention of the Holy Father for his final and authoritative decision about "beatification" (whereby one becomes a "Blessed" in the Church) and "canonization" (whereby one becomes a "Saint" in the Church). In the case of other than a martyr, he regularly requires for beatification a thoroughly scrutinized and established miracle that took place after the death of the subject in question, and for canonization a second miracle of the same kind. In the case of a martyr, such a miracle is as a rule necessary only for canonization. All of this is spelled out in a document entitled "New Laws for the Causes of Saints," which was issued by the Vatican in 1983 and which I had the pleasure of helping to translate while serving in the Roman Curia.

Originating in the Archdiocese of New York, there are no fewer than five cases at various stages in the process toward beatification and canonization. Not only interesting but also inspiring, they are as follows:

*Servant of God, Pierre Toussaint, an African-American layman who lived in the late 1700s and early 1800s, as an incredibly charitable member of St. Peter’s Parish on Barclay Street in Lower Manhattan. (His story is told by Ellen Tarry in "Pierre Toussaint, Apostle of Old New York," Boston, l998.)

*Servant of God, Felix Varela, a vicar general of the Diocese of New York, who also lived in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and founded Transfiguration Parish on Mott Street in Lower Manhattan. (His story is told by Joseph and Helen M. McCadden in "Felix Varela, Torchbearer from Cuba," San Juan, 1984.)

*Servant of God, Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, daughter of the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, and foundress of the Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer, who lived from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, and established, among other such institutions for persons afflicted with incurable cancer, the Rosary Hill Home in Hawthorne, New York. (Her story is told by Theodore Maynard in "A Fire Was Lighted, The Life of Rose Hawthorne Lathrop," Milwaukee, 1948.)

*Servant of God, Dorothy Day, a laywoman who lived in the 1900’s, championed the poor, defended the unborn, fought for world peace, and opened such facilities for the hungry and homeless as St. Joseph House on East First Street in Manhattan, and Mary House on East Third Street, also in Manhattan. (Her story is told by William D. Miller in "Dorothy Day, A Biography," New York, 1982, and by Dorothy Day herself in "The Long Loneliness," Chicago, 1952.)

*Servant of God, Terence Cardinal Cooke, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York who served with great distinction and holiness as the Archbishop of New York from 1968 to 1983. (His story is told by Benedict J. Groeschel and Terrence L. Weber in "Thy Will Be Done, A Spiritual Portrait of Terence Cardinal Cooke," New York, 1990.)


The Funeral Mass was over. Cardinal Husar and I made our way back into St. Peter’s Basilica. At the entrance of the splendid edifice a priest of the Ukrainian Catholic Rite was waiting to assist the cardinal. He was young and exuberant; and as he and the cardinal were moving away, he turned to me to proclaim with the broadest of smiles, "Santo subito," two words that I heard over and again throughout the rest of the day.

That night I said a prayer in the chapel of the seminary in which I was residing for the speedy canonization of our beloved Pope John Paul II and added another such prayer, I must confess, for five very special New Yorkers-Pierre, Felix, Rose, Dorothy and Terence. Somehow I was sure that the deceased pontiff, who presided over more beatifications and canonizations than any pope in history, would wholeheartedly approve.

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York