The road to sainthood is a little wider now, thanks to Pope Francis’ approval of a fourth pathway to possible canonization—the giving of one’s life in a heroic act of service to others.
We applaud this action, made public in an apostolic letter after nearly three years of consideration by the Vatican Congregation for Saints’ Causes, because it recognizes the heroic sacrifices of those who willingly risked their lives, and died as a result, in selfless service to others.
Who might fall into this category?
Missionaries, both religious and lay, who volunteer to serve those left behind to subsist in dangerous, strife-torn parts of the world, standing up to militants who threaten their charges; doctors, nurses and other medical personnel who care for victims of deadly infectious diseases (ebola comes to mind) in primitive field hospitals and similar settings; pregnant mothers diagnosed with serious illness who forgo lifesaving treatment to avoid harming the unborn baby.
There are people who might jump onto a subway track in the path of an oncoming train to rescue someone who has fallen; and those who rush into burning houses to pull out a loved one trapped inside, knowing they stood little or no chance to escape themselves.
They are people who did not neatly fit into the traditional categories of martyrdom or heroic virtues that have long applied to sainthood candidates.
Archbishop Marcello Bartolucci, secretary of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes, said the addition is meant “to promote heroic Christian testimony, (that has been) up to now without a specific process” for moving toward beatification.
For centuries, consideration for the sainthood process required that a Servant of God heroically lived a life of Christian virtues or had been martyred for the faith. The third, less common way, is called an equivalent or equipollent canonization: when there is evidence of strong devotion among the faithful to a holy man or woman, the pope can waive a lengthy formal canonical investigation and can authorize their veneration as saints.
While these three roads to sainthood remain unchanged, they were not adequate “for interpreting all possible cases” of holiness, said Archbishop Bartolucci, writing in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.
Any candidates for beatification under the new standard would have to meet certain criteria: There must be a free and willing offer of one’s life and a heroic acceptance, out of love, of a certain and early death; and the heroic act of charity and the premature death are connected. There must be evidence of having lived out the Christian virtues—at least in an ordinary, and not necessarily heroic, way—before having offered one’s life to others and until one’s death, as well as evidence of a reputation for holiness, at least after death.
And, as always, a miracle attributed to the candidate’s intercession is needed for beatification.
We’re sure that the candidates proposed under this new category will indeed be worthy of the title of the pope’s apostolic letter, issued as a moto proprio. The title, from the Gospel according to St. John (15:13) is: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
A perfect description of a saint.