How does a person get canonized? Or, to be more precise, what is it that distinguishes the 10,000 or so official Catholic saints from the rest of us 1.2 billion Catholic sinners?
On Wednesday, Pope Francis canonized Junipero Serra, an 18th-century Spanish missionary who introduced—or imposed—Catholicism among Native American communities in California. Emma Green elsewhere details the controversy surrounding Serra’s reputation as a cultural imperialist, and the impact of the missionary project as a whole on native communities. But Serra is controversial for another reason—he’s only got one Rome-certified miracle to his name. (A miracle, per the catechism, is “a sign or wonder, such as a healing or the control of nature, which can only be attributed to divine power.”) Saints are usually required to perform at least two, though martyrs are an exception to this rule and popes can make other exceptions, as Francis has done in this case.
It’s not easy to become a saint, though Pope John Paul II made it a little easier, and it can take a while. Serra died in 1794, and the one miracle Church authorities have confidently declared he performed was in 1960, when a nun in St. Louis was cured of a mystery disease, thought to be lupus, after having prayed to him on her deathbed. (Rejected miracles attributed to Serra: a non-injurious fall from a horse, a life-changing epiphany experienced at the holy man’s tomb, and a cured case of alcoholism.) Still, the rules for sainthood are pretty straightforward. Essentially, to become a saint, you must 1. be dead 2. have demonstrated “heroic virtue” while alive and 3. perform miracles posthumously.