This article was written by Fr. Joseph Frawley, a member of the Orthodox Church in America’s Canonization Commission. It was originally published in the April-May 2000 issue of The Orthodox Church Newspaper.
While the glorification of saints in the Orthodox Church has been taking place for nearly 2000 years, few people today are certain about how this really happens. Does the Church “make” a saint? Are there special panels which decide who can be considered for sainthood? Are saints “elected” by a majority vote? Does a person have to perform a certain number of miracles in order to quality as a saint? The answers to these questions may be surprising to some.
We know that there are several categories of saints: prophets, evangelists, martyrs, ascetics, holy bishops and priests, and those who live a righteous life “in the world.” What they all have in common is holiness of life. Three times in the Book of Leviticus (Ch 11, 19 and 20) God tells us to be holy, because He is holy. We must consecrate ourselves, for we are His people. Saint Peter reiterates this commandment in the new testament, challenging us to obey God’s commandments and submit our will to His will (1 Pet 1:16). Everyone is challenged to manifest holiness in their lives, for we all must become saints! This is our special - and common - calling from God. It is not something reserved for the clergy, monastics, or those who are “more pious.” Everyone who has been baptized into Christ must live in such a way that Christ lives within us. “Do you not know,” Saint Paul asks, “that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16).
So, the glorification of saints in the Orthodox Church is a recognition that God’s holiness is manifested in the Church through these grace-filled men and women whose lives were pleasing to God. Very early on, the Church recognized the righteous ancestors of Christ (Forefathers), those who predicted His coming (Prophets), and those who proclaimed the Gospel (Apostles and Evangelists). Then those who risked their lives and shed their blood to bear witness to Christ (Martyrs and Confessors) were also recognized by the Church as saints. There was no special canonization process, but their relics were treasured and the annual anniversaries of their martyrdoms were celebrated. Later, the ascetics, who followed Christ through self denial, were numbered among the saints. Bishops and priests who proclaimed the True Faith and fought against heresy were added to the list. Finally, those in other walks of life who manifested holiness were recognized as saints.
While the glorification of a saint may be initiated because of miracles, it is not an absolute necessity for canonization. The Roman Catholic Church requires three verified miracles in order to recognize someone as a saint; the Orthodox Church does not require this. There are some saints, including Saint Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain (July 14) and Saint Innocent of Moscow (commemorated March 31), who have not performed any miracles, as far as we know. What is required is a virtuous life of obvious holiness. And a saint’s writings and preaching must be “fully Orthodox,” in agreement with the pure faith that we have received from Christ and the Apostles and taught by the Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils.
Can the Church “make” a saint? The answer is no. Only God can do that. We glorify those whom God Himself has glorified, seeing in their lives true love for God and their neighbors. The Church merely recognizes that such a person has cooperated with God’s grace to the extent that his or her holiness is beyond doubt.
Are saints “elected” by special panels or by majority vote? Again, the answer is no. Long before an official inquiry into a person’s life is made, that person is venerated by the people where he or she lived and died. His or her memory is kept alive by the people who pray for his or her soul or who ask him or her for intercession. Sometimes people will visit his or her grave or have icons painted through their love for the person. Then a request is made, usually through the diocesan bishop, for the Church to recognize that person as a saint. A committee, such as the Orthodox Church in America’s Canonization Commission, is formed to research the life of the person who is being considered for glorification and to submit a report to the Holy Synod stating its reasons why the person should or should not be recognized as a saint. Then the Holy Synod decides to number that person among the saints and have icons painted and liturgical services composed.
The formal Rite of Glorification begins with a final Memorial Service for the person about to be canonized, after which Vespers and Matins with special hymns to the saint are chanted and the saint’s icon is unveiled. The saint’s life is published and the date of his or her commemoration is established. The other Orthodox Churches are notified of the glorification so that they can place the new saint’s name on their calendars.
Through the prayers of all the saints, may we be encouraged to follow their example of virtue and holiness.