The Church's Most Beautiful Congregation

Saint Dicastery Turning 40

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VATICAN CITY, JUNE 26, 2009 (Zenit.org).- The Congregation for Saints' Causes is turning 40, and according to its former prefect, it’s the most beautiful congregation in the Church.



The saints congregation and the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments arose out of a restructuring of the Sacred Congregation for Rites, established in 1588. Paul VI split the rites dicastery after the Second Vatican Council.

Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, a Portuguese member of the Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, was put in charge of the congregation in 1998. He retired last year, and now at age 77, is frequently tapped by the Pope to be the papal representative at beatification and canonization ceremonies around the globe.

Cardinal Saraiva Martins told ZENIT that his role as the leader of the saints congregation was one of the most important among the many posts he's held in the Roman Curia. "One learns to know the Church better regarding sanctity, in its most intimate and profound reality," he explained.

During his decade heading up the congregation, he studied 1,320 biographies of saints and blesseds: "an army of saints," he remarked.

"The blesseds and the saints are all different," the cardinal said. "They are all extremely interesting. They have a unique point of view, according to their lives and personalities."

Extending the map

Work at the dicastery, Cardinal Saraiva Martins acknowledged, was both exciting and demanding: "Mornings were full to the brim," he recalled. "There wasn't even time to have a coffee."

He noted that one of the fruits of such work is that the congregation has multiplied the canonization and beatification processes, such that during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, more saints and blesseds were proclaimed than in all of history combined.

From 1588 to 1978, there were 808 blesseds and 296 saints proclaimed. John Paul II, however, approved 1,353 beatifications and 482 canonizations. During the cardinal's term, 1,108 were proclaimed blessed and 217 were canonized.

"The geography of sanctity has broadened significantly," he remarked. "Sanctity is not European; it's universal. Everyone can be a saint, whatever his ethnicity or the social position to which he belongs. Africans and Americans have been canonized. For example, the first Brazilian was canonized, Fray Galvão. Brazil is the country with the largest number of Catholics in the world and they didn't have any [canonized] saints."

Worthy of note

Some 30 people work in the saints dicastery, but many more -- medical doctors, historians, consultors -- collaborate in studying those on the path to canonization. There are 300 postulators.

"The other Vatican dicasteries do not have this multitude," the cardinal quipped.

The retired prefect confessed that one of the stories that most moved him was that of Edith Stein. "She was a woman of great thinking, but with a biblical-theological spiritual sensitivity," he noted. "An extraordinary mystic."

Others worthy of mentioning, the cardinal added, are Pope John XXIII, Padre Pio, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, St. Josemaría Escrivá the founder of Opus Dei, and Marie Zélie Guérin and Louis Martin, the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

Regarding this last example, the cardinal explained: "This is the first time in the history of the Church that parents of a canonized daughter were beatified. And they are the second couple to be beatified together. I led this case with a great amount of enthusiasm."

Cardinal Saraiva Martins revealed that John Paul II once told him the saints congregation is the most important dicastery in the Church. "If sanctity is the only important thing in the Church," he said, "the dicastery that studies sanctity is the most beautiful."