The formal declaration of a deceased person’s sanctity, whereby his or her name is added to the roll of the saints of the church and commended for veneration by the faithful.
The earliest persons to be canonized were the martyrs, who submitted to death for Christ, and the confessors, who avowed their faith in Christian life and acquired a reputation for sanctity. Next were the early fathers, thanks to whom the basic doctrines and teachings of religion were firmly established, and who dedicated their lives for the proclamation of the gospel of Christ.
In the early days of Christianity, churches used to exchange news and information regarding such martyrs and confessors whose names were worthy of being mentioned in prayers. EUSEBIUS OF CAESAREA, the father of church history, records a letter sent by “the church of God which dwelleth at Smyrna to the church of God which dwelleth in Philomelium” in connection with the martyrdom of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (c. 69-155).
The letter ends with these words, “And so we afterwards gathered up his bones, which were more valuable than precious stones and more to be esteemed than gold, and laid them in a suitable place. There the Lord will permit us to come together as we are able, in gladness and joy to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom for the commemoration of those who have already fought and for the training and preparation of those who shall hereafter do the same.”
In the Roman Catholic church the authority to canonize is the prerogative of the pope of Rome. In the Coptic church, as well as other Orthodox Churches, the power of canonization rests with the Holy Synod.
- Kemp, E. W. Canonization and Authority in the Western Church. London, 1948.
- Naz, R. “Causes de béatification et de canonisation.” In Dictionnaire de droit canonique, Vol. 3, cols. 10-37. Paris, 1942.