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A Fourth Path to Sainthood:

New Cause in Procedure for Canonization and Beatification

by Archbishop Marcello Bartolucci

Secretary of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints


           With the Motu ProprioMaiorem hac dilectionem” on the offer of life, Pope Francis has opened the path to beatification for those faithful who, inspired by charity, have heroically offered their life for their neighbor, freely and voluntarily accepting certain and untimely death in their determination to follow Jesus: he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” (1 Jn 3:16)

As we know, for centuries the norms of the Catholic Church have provided that one may proceed to the beatification of a Servant of God along one of three paths:

1)  The path of martyrdom, which is the supreme imitation of Christ and the greatest witness of charity. The classic concept of martyrdom consists in:

a)  the voluntary acceptance of a violent death out of love of Christ on the part of the victim;

b)  the persecutor’s odium for the faith, or for another Christian virtue;

c)  the clemency and forgiveness of the victim who emulates the example of Jesus, who on the Cross invoked the Father’s mercy for his murderers;

2)  The path of heroic virtues, exercised “swiftly, readily, gladly and above the common way of conduct, for a supernatural end” (Benedict XIV), and for a corresponding period of time, or until doing so becomes a habitual way of being and acting in coherence with the Gospel. It is a matter of theological virtues (faith, hope, charity), cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance), and “adjunct” virtues (poverty, obedience, chastity, humility);

3)  There is then a third path, lesser known and less travelled, which leads, however, to the same result as the other two. It is the way of the so-called casus excepti, thus called by the Code of Canon Law of 1917 (cf. cann. 2125-2135). Their recognition leads to the confirmation of an ancient cult, which is subsequent to the Pontificate of Alexander III (†1181) and prior to 1534, as established by Urban VIII (1623-1644), the great legislator of the Causes of Saints. The confirmation of the ancient cult is also called “equipollent beatification.”

These three paths are still open and passable, but do not appear sufficient to interpret all possible causes of canonizable sanctity. In fact, recently, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints has asked “whether beatification is not deserved by those Servants of God who, inspired by Christ’s example, have freely and voluntarily offered and immolated their own life for their brethren in a supreme act of charity, which was the direct cause of death, thus putting into practice the Word of the Lord: ‘Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (Jn 15:13).” (Positio peculiaris, p. 3)

This introduces a fourth path, which we could call the offer of life [vitae oblatio]. While having several elements that resemble both the path of martyrdom and that of heroic virtues, it is a new path that is meant to value a heroic Christian witness, previously lacking a specific procedure, precisely because it does not demonstrate all the particular traits of the cause of martyrdom nor of heroic virtues.

The path of the offer of life, indeed, partially resembles that of martyrdom because there is a heroic gift of self, up to and including death, but it is distinguishable because there is no persecutor who seeks to impose the choice against Christ. Similarly, the path of the offer of life resembles that of heroic virtues because there is a heroic act of charity (the gift of self) inspired by Christ’s example, but it is distinguishable because it is not the expression of a prolonged exercise of virtues and, in particular, of heroic charity. However, it requires an ordinary exercise of Christian life, which makes possible and comprehensible the free and voluntary decision to give one’s own life in a supreme act of Christian love, which surpasses the natural instinct of self-preservation, by imitating Christ, who offered himself to the Father for the world, on the Cross.

It is clear, therefore, that all the paths to canonized sanctity must have a common denominator in charity, which is the “bond of perfection”, “fullness of the law” and “spirit of sanctity.” Hence, the offer of life cannot elude the perfection of charity, which in this case, however, is not the result of a prolonged, willing and joyful repetition of virtuous acts, but is a unique heroic act which, for its radicalness, irrevocability and persistence usque ad mortem, fully expresses the Christian option. Thus, theologians teach that, owing to the “connection” between virtues, where there is a heroic act of charity, there cannot fail to be a corresponding act of faith, hope, prudence, fortitude, and so on. It must also be said that the time element, namely, the duration of the offer, has a relevance of its own. Indeed, if the heroic act of the offer continues over years, it could in the end fall within the cause of heroic virtues, which become such not only because they are the expression of extraordinarily perfect conduct, but also because they endure for a noteworthy period of time, which Canon Law indicates as a decade of practice in ordinary cases. To delineate this aspect the Motu Proprio speaks quite opportunely of an “untimely death”, which does not mean immediate, but neither so far removed as to transform the heroic act into heroic virtue.

In that circumstance the cause would be modified. Should the heroic offer of life occur together with the heroic exercise of Christian virtues, clearly, the juridical procedure will prefer the cause of heroic virtues, which more fully express the character of the Servant of God, the holiness and the harmony of his or her spiritual riches. Were it possible to outline a classification of juridical paths for the verification of canonizable sanctity, we could conclude that at the first place is martyrdom; at the second is heroic virtues; at the third the heroic offer of life, up to and including death. To conclude the rationale we can calmly assert that one who seals his or her life with a heroic act of charity can be considered a perfect disciple of Christ and, as such, deserves to be offered as a model of Christian life, if God himself guarantees the authenticity and exemplarity of it through the reputation of holiness, proof of miracles and favourable judgment of the supreme authority of the Church.

The offer of life usque ad mortem, until now has not constituted a cause in and of itself but, had there been such an offer, it would have been incorporated, only as a detail, in the cause of heroic virtues, or in that of martyrdom. It is now clear that this incorporation did not do justice to a true and, in many respects, moving expression of sanctity. Already Benedict XIV, the Magister, did not exclude from canonization those who had given their life in an extreme act of charity, as, for example, providing assistance to plague victims, which, triggering infection, became a certain cause of death.

All these questions became the object of explicit reflection by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, beginning with the Ordinary Congress of 24 January 2014. The Prefect, Cardinal Angelo Amato, called the question to the attention of the Holy Father Francis in the Audience of the following 7 February. The Pope “approved and encouraged” the study of this new cause, for which the Dicastery prepared a Positio peculiaris, with the complementary contributions of five academics of the Causes of Saints: a biblical scholar, a professor of dogmatic theology, a specialist in spiritual theology, a legal expert and a historian.

On 2 June 2016 the Congregation held a Peculiar Congress comprised of 15 experts (10 consultors and 5 postulators), different from those of the Positio peculiaris. The meeting was presided by Bishop Enrico Dal Covolo, above all in his capacity as postulator. The discussion focused on five queries communicated by the Congress, formulated as:

a)  Can the offer of life, followed by death, be determined to be an expression of supreme and heroic imitation of Christ?

b)  What psychological and theological characteristics should the offer of life have in order to be considered a heroic act of charity?

c Must the offer of life mature in the context of a consolidated Christian life, or can it be a sudden decision, that is, without remote preparation?

d)  Is it appropriate that the offer of life be a cause, distinct from those of martyrdom and of heroic virtues?  

e)  Must the juridical procedure for eventual beatification per viam vitae oblationis, beyond the diocesan investigation super vita, virtutibus, oblatione vitae, fama sanctitatis... also include proof of a miracle?” (Relatio et Vota Congressus Peculiaris, p. 8)

Each question was answered in writing by the 15 consultors and postulators who then discussed the matter in a collegial meeting (congresso). As noted, the conclusions of the peculiar congresses of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints are very important, because they express the reasoned opinion of the academics and experts who examined the matter in depth. However, their vote is not deliberative and binding. In our case, the ample and peaceful in-depth examination of the Congress led to these conclusions:

a)  the offer of life, followed by death, can be determined to be an expression of supreme and heroic imitation of Christ, as arises from the New Testament, from the Tradition of the martyrs and confessors of the faith, from the Magisterium of the Popes, from the Second Vatican Council and from theological reflection, above all, in regard to charity;

b)  the offer of life, in the vast majority of cases, matures within a context of the practice of Christian virtues;

c as to the query whether the offer of life must be a cause distinct from those of martyrdom and of heroic virtues, the majority of votes supported the idea of configuring a distinct cause, while a minority did not hold it appropriate;

d)  as to the juridical procedure for eventual beatification per viam vitae oblationis, beyond the diocesan investigation super vita, virtutibus, oblatione vitae, fama sanctitatis, the majority of consultors and postulators held that a formally approved miracle is necessary for beatification.

On 27 September 2016, members of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints took these opinions to the Plenary Session of Cardinals and Bishops. Here too, the various aspects of the issue were deeply and broadly examined in the light of doctrine and pastoral considerations. In conclusion, the Cardinals and Bishops voted favourably for a new path to beatification for those who have offered their life with explicit and recognized Christian motivations. The need for a formally approved miracle was also highlighted, as divine confirmation of human judgment on the offer of life. These conclusions were submitted by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to the Holy Father Francis by way of the letter of 28 November 2016 (Prot. Num. VAR 7454/14).

On 17 January of this year the Secretary of State informed Cardinal Amato that His Holiness “this 10 January has benevolently approved the proposal to proceed to the beatification of those Servants of God whose free and voluntary offer of life was the cause of their death.”

The Congregation was also asked to “draft the text of the Pontifical Pronouncement” in order to present it for the definitive approval of the Holy Father. The text of said Pontifical Pronouncement is now the Motu Proprio Maiorem hac dilectionem” signed by Pope Francis. This Papal Document quite rightly states at Art. 2: “The offer of life, in order that it be valid and effective for the beatification of a Servant of God, must respond to the following criteria:

1)  a free and voluntary offer of life and heroic acceptance propter caritatem of a certain and untimely death;

2)  a nexus between the offer of life and premature death;

3)  the exercise, at least as ordinarily possible, of Christian virtues before the offer of life and, then, unto death;

4)  the existence of a reputation of holiness and of signs, at least after death;  

5)  the necessity of a miracle for beatification, occurring after the death of the Servant of God and through his or her intercession.

Article 3 of the Motu Proprio adds the norms regarding the canonical investigation of the offer of life and the preparation of the relative dossier (Positio) for submission to the theologian Consultors and to the Cardinals: “The celebration of the diocesan or eparchial Inquest and the relative Positio are regulated by the Apostolic Constitution Divinus perfectionis Magister of 25 January 1983 [...] and by the Normae servandae... of 7 February of the same year.” This new regulation on the offer of life must also be linked, logically, to the Instruction Sanctorum Mater of 17 May 2007, which is intended to facilitate the proper application of the legislation of 1983.

Lastly, the Motu Proprio has established that the dubium – that is, the matter under examination – in causes based on the offer of life be thus formulated: “An constet de heroica oblatione vitae usque ad mortem propter caritatem necnon de virtutibus christianis, saltem in gradu ordinario, in casu et ad effectum de quo agitur” (i.e., whether the offer of life unto death for reason of charity, as well as at least the ordinary exercise of Christian virtues, is demonstrated in the cause and for the ends concerned).

The Holy Father has also ordered that this legislative act be promulgated by publication in L’Osservatore Romano and that it enter into force on the day of said publication.

With this provision, not only have the doctrine of canonizable Christian sanctity and the traditional procedure of the Church for the beatification of Servants of God been amended, but they have been enriched with new horizons and opportunities for edifying the People of God, who in their Saints see the face of Christ, God’s presence in history and the exemplary implementation of the Gospel.

[originally published in L’Osservatore Romano, 14 July 2017, pp. 6-8]



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