Many of the world's religions bestow special status on people who demonstrate a life of almost perfect virtue. Religions differ on the title assigned to these people. The Catholic church calls them saints. The process by which someone becomes a saint is called canonization.

The Catholic church has canonized about 3,000 people, although the exact number is unknown because not all saints were officially canonized. According to the Catholic church, the pope does not make someone a saint -- the designation of sainthood only recognizes what God has already done. For centuries, saints were chosen through public opinion. In the 10th century, Pope John XV developed an official canonization process.

Canonization has been revised in the last 1,000 years, most recently by Pope John Paul II in 1983. Pope John Paul II, who has canonized more than 280 people since 1978, made several procedural changes to the canonization process, including the elimination of the "devil's advocate" from the review process. The devil's advocate was the person designated to attack the evidence offered in favor of canonization.

The process of becoming a Catholic saint is very lengthy, often taking decades or centuries to complete. To best describe the canonization process, let's look at the case mounting in favor of the canonization of Mother Teresa.

Soon after her death in 1997, Mother Teresa's followers began pressing the Vatican to waive the rule that prevents the process of canonization from beginning until five years following the candidate's death. This rule has traditionally been used to allow for a more objective look at a person's life and achievements. In 1999, the pope did waive the five-year rule, allowing the canonization process to begin. Here are the steps that must be followed:

  1. A local bishop investigates the candidate's life and writings for evidence of heroic virtue. The information uncovered by the bishop is sent to the Vatican.
  2. A panel of theologians and the cardinals of the Congregation for Cause of Saints evaluate the candidate's life.
  3. If the panel approves, the pope proclaims that the candidate is venerable, which means that the person is a role model of Catholic virtues.
  4. The next step toward sainthood is beatification. Beatification allows a person to be honored by a particular group or region. In order to beatify a candidate, it must be shown that the person is responsible for a posthumous miracle. Martyrs, those who died for their religious cause, can be beatified without evidence of a miracle.
  5. In order for the candidate to be considered a saint, there must be proof of a second posthumous miracle. If there is, the person is canonized.

These alleged miracles must be submitted to the Vatican for verification. Sister Teresia Benedicta of the Cross was canonized in 1997 after the Vatican verified that a young girl who ate seven times the lethal dose of Tylenol was suddenly cured. The girl's family was said to have prayed to the spirit of Sister Teresia for help. In Mother Teresa's case, her supporters are arguing that she has performed at least two posthumous miracles. In one case, a French woman in the United States broke several ribs in a car accident -- reportedly, her wounds were healed because she was wearing a Mother Teresa medallion. Another possible miracle occurred when Mother Teresa appeared in the dreams of a Palestinian girl, telling the girl that her cancer was cured.

Once a person is a saint, he or she is recommended to the entire Catholic church for veneration. Some saints are selected as patron saints, special protectors or guardians over particular occupations, illnesses, churches, countries or causes. For example, the Pope is planning on naming a patron saint of Internet users and computer programmers. Several saints are being considered, but the lead candidate is St. Isidore of Seville, who is credited with writing the world's first encyclopedia. Click here to see a full list of patron saints.

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