Regularizing Sainthood in Christianity

  August 04, 2021   Read time 3 min
Regularizing Sainthood in Christianity
From roughly the sixth to the tenth century, what formal canonizations took place did so under the supervision of the local bishop. The process qua process was rather informal.

It was inevitable that, as Europe emerged from the dark ages after the dissolution of the post-Carolingian period, along with the emergence of city life, the sporadic efforts to reform the church, the greater ease of travel, and the increase in economic life, attempts to regularize the cult of the saints would also gain the attention of church authority. This was not a quick process. Before the high Middle Ages, there was no systematic set of procedures for canonization. By “canonization” is meant a process by which a person is inscribed on the list (Greek: kanon) of those to whom liturgical honors are paid either at the local (for example, the saint of this or that monastery or diocese) or universal level. While the church believed that everyone who died in God’s grace was in heaven, canonization singled out from the general mass of the faithful certain iconic figures who represented the “best” of the faithful and the most reliable persons who might intercede for people before the throne of God.

From roughly the sixth to the tenth century, what formal canonizations took place did so under the supervision of the local bishop. The process qua process was rather informal. A petition would be made to the bishop, usually accompanied by a written text about the putative saint’s life and merits. If the bishop was suitably convinced, permission was given to transfer the body of the saint (the transfer – translatio – had a highly symbolic value and was, in places, also commemorated as a feast day in its own right) to a suitable shrine location and a festival date set to be added to the calendar of the saints (the so-called sanctorale). They were, in effect, inscribed on the list (kanon) of those who could be venerated. As might be imagined, the number of regional sanctorales tended to multiply without any central organization.

Today, in the Roman Catholic Church, canonizations fall under the sole competence of papal authority. How that centralization of canonization authority happened involves a long historical story. The Roman Church had a well-developed cycle of saints’ feast days that was well in place by the sixth century. That cycle of feasts honored, in the main, martyrs and confessors who were either identified with the city and its environs or figures of universal significance, such as those associated with Christ (for example, John the Baptist and the apostles). By the end of the fifth century the city was dotted with churches dedicated to the memory of the great Roman martyrs as well as the apostles and some conspicuous confessors. During Lent, daily services were held at the “stational” churches of a given saint.5 The last saint, before the eleventh century, to enter into the Roman calendar was Pope Saint Gregory the Great who died in 604.

It was not until the early eleventh century that new saints were added to the Roman calendar. Pope Gregory VII added thirty popes from the ancient church to the calendar as part of his strategy of enhancing the power of the papacy. In 1173 he added the name of the Englishman, Saint Thomas Becket, who had been assassinated by the king’s courtiers three years earlier and was already the focus of an intense cult in England. Interestingly enough, he is listed as a martyr even though it is clear that the king’s partisans killed him because of his resistance to monarchical power. When Thomas Becket’s name was enrolled in the Roman canon of saints the last saint to be put on the list before him was Gregory the Great who had lived nearly six hundred years earlier.