According to Catholic doctrine, the church does not choose saints — God does. God consecrates a person’s sainthood the moment he or she enters heaven, and Earthly sainthood is thus merely a posthumous, mortal recognition of what is believed to be God’s divine will. So in a sense, the sainthood of Pope John Paul II has been a done deal for quite some time. But it's still worth looking into how the beloved Polish pope got to where he is now.
As one might expect, the Catholic Church does not take lightly the process of determining whom God has and has not sanctified. It is indeed quite a stretch of human power for one to claim to understand God’s undisclosed intentions.
There is subsequently a long, deliberate set of hurdles that a person’s legacy must face before he or she is recognized as a saint, complete with multiple stages and titles which charter one's progress in the overall pursuit of sainthood.
It is precedent — though not an official rule — that five years pass after a person’s death before his or her sainthood is considered. Once five years have passed, there is a logical line of verifications that the Catholic Church grants. Below are the four official rungs that an aspiring saint must climb before humanity acknowledges his or her sanctity.
1. Servant of God
The first esteemed title granted by the church in the canonization process is “Servant of God.” Someone must nominate a candidate for official consideration to a bishop, who then determines the candidate’s viability. If the bishop determines that the nominee is a viable candidate for sainthood, then the candidate completes the first rung of canonization and acquires his or her first title.
Each officially sanctioned Servant of God then pursues the next title: Venerable. The candidate’s life is investigated, analyzed, and contextualized by a Vatican committee called the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. This committee works to uncover and understand the life of the candidate and, ultimately, hopes to find proof that the candidate lived a life of heroic virtue — that he or she earnestly and aggressively sought to improve his or her own spirituality consistently throughout his or her life.
Once the Congregation for the Causes of Saints has ensured that there is substantial reason in the life of the candidate that he or she might be a saint, a miracle attributed to the candidate must be observed.
The Catholic Church only acknowledges a miracle as legitimate if it is both spontaneous and enigmatic. Claims of a miracle are meticulously investigated, a process that includes an examination of the person who experiences or witnesses the miracle. Experts are also consulted to ensure that there is no physical or natural explanation for the miracle.
Although miracles often affect living people, especially in the form of healings, some miracles are revealed in the mortal remains of the candidate. Such examples include incorruptibility, in which the candidate’s remains do not decay, liquefaction, in which the saint’s dried blood liquefies on his or her feast day, and odor of sanctity, in which the candidate’s corpse smells not of decay, but of a sweet aroma years after his or her death.
If the miracle is verified, the candidate is then presented to the pope. So begins the process of beatification in which the pope — in his own divine influence — determines if the candidate is worthy of the title “Blessed.”
Once a candidate has reach the “Blessed” rung, he or she must be associated with at least one more miracle. The pope is again presented with the miracle’s evidence and determines its legitimacy. If the pope indeed decides that the candidate is worthy of sainthood, then canonization ensues and the Catholic Church officially recognizes a new saint.