When the notoriously conservative U.S. Catholic bishops threw their support behind the sainthood of Dorothy Day, a famous socialist activist, eyebrows shot up at what some interpreted as a political move. But Day’s cause isn’t a sudden trick by the bishops to soften their image after high-profile clashes with the Obama administration. Day’s sainthood was a no-brainer to Catholics left and right, and her cause has been in the works for decades.
The path to canonization begins at the grassroots level, when members of a parish or Catholic order agree that someone of unusual virtue lived among them. They start to build their case, usually by investigating the possible saint’s life and writings. When Cardinal Timothy Dolan called Day “a saint for our times” at the bishops’ vote, he was echoing the case her supporters had been making for decades, starting with a 1983 article that appeared in a Catholic magazine just three years after her death. Pope John Paul II officially recognized her cause in 2000, raising her to the status of “servant of God” and setting off the search for miracles.
Documenting the two miracles required for sainthood is a time-consuming and costly ordeal. Miracles are usually medical cures and require proof that the person who prayed to the potential saint was actually ill, that they received a lasting cure, and that no other explanation can be found. Some Catholic orders can afford massive investigations and lobbying trips to Rome and have an easier time attracting the attention of the Vatican.
But even for the best-connected Catholics, there’s no guarantee they’ll make it past the miracles phase: Mother Teresa, who was beatified with one miracle in 2003, is still waiting on the sidelines. Pope John Paul II’s rapid beatification after his death in 2005 sparked controversy, with some even questioning the veracity of his first miracle, the supposed cure of a French nun’s Parkinson’s disease.
Pope Benedict significantly slowed down what some Catholics called his predecessor’s “saint factory,” believing that making too many saints devalued the currency. And mysterious Vatican politics can always get in the way. Despite surviving an intensive Vatican review, reportedly over his connection to left-wing liberation theology, the wildly popular Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero has stalled.
Other Americans waiting in the wings include Pierre Toussaint, a French slave who became a highly popular hairdresser in New York, and Fulton Sheen, an archbishop who won an Emmy Award for his successful 1950s religious television show. Despite the slower pace of canonization, Kenneth Woodward, the author of Making Saints, says there is fresh energy behind American causes: “I’ve never seen so many candidates being worked on.”