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4 March 2008

The path to sainthood

Peter Jennings explains how the late English Cardinal, John Henry Newman, may be created a Catholic

By Peter Jennings

How does one become a saint? It’s an area that fascinates the religious and non-religious alike and the process by which the Catholic Church comes to grant this sacred status requires a meticulous, step-by-step investigation into every aspect of the life of the Servant of God.

No English person has been canonised, except for the martyrs that gave their lives for the Catholic Faith, since the Reformation in the sixteenth century.

But the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman, 1801-1890, the best-known English churchman of the 19th century and founder of the English Congregation of the Oratory of St Philip Neri, may be beatified later this year – moving him a step closer to sainthood.

The creation of saints is particuarly topical just now because of a new Vatican instruction on the first stage of the process which was unveiled during a press conference held in the Vatican on 18 February.

The document, Sanctorum Mater (Mother of Saints) is a step-by-step guide to help bishops around the world complete the diocesan phase done carefully and correctly.

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This involves the setting up of a Historical Commission by the bishop of the diocese where the person lived and died, and the writing of the Positio – the document that sets out that:

“The Servant of God, had practiced the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity towards God and his neighbour, also the cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude and those connected with them, to a heroic degree, in accordance with the requirements of the investigation of the case.”

But these updated instructions do not apply in the case of Cardinal Newman – who was declared Venerable by Pope John Paul II in 1991.

During the second stage – beatification – proof of two miracles of physical healing are required. In the final stage, the canonisation process, before the Pope declares the Servant of God a saint.

At present the Congregation for Saints in Rome is meticulously investigating the ‘miraculous’ healing during 2001 of Deacon Jack Sullivan from the Archdiocese of Boston, USA.

Sullivan, aged 69, from Massachusetts, Chief Magistrate at Plymouth District Court, had a severe spinal disorder but was restored to full mobility after prayer to Cardinal Newman on the Feast of the Assumption, 15 August 2001.

Since Benedict XVI was elected Pope in 2005, there have been 20 ceremonies during which 563 Servants of God have been beatified including 48 diocesan priests, 485 male and female religious, and 30 lay people. The current Pope has also declared 14 people saints – adding to his total of 577 new saints and blesseds created.

It is also known that Pope Benedict XVI has been interested in Cardinal Newman since first reading his writings as a young man.

At the end of the introduction to my book Benedict XVI and Cardinal Newman, I wrote: “Will it be Benedict XVI, the first Pope of the twenty-first century, who will canonise John Henry Newman, and declare him a Doctor of the Church?”

If so, Newman would be in illustrious company. The only previous Englishman to be declared a Doctor of the Church is the Venerable Bede – the Country Durham Benedictine monk and “father of English history,” who died in 735.

Picture courtesy the Fathers of the Birmingham Oratory

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