It's May 1999 and I'm walking down the streets of Rome. All around I see posters and placards joyously celebrating the beatification of Padre Pio, and kiosks with Pio paraphernalia set up along the streets. I got to Rome just days after the good Padre, a renowned and controversial Italian priest, was beatified, or declared to be with God in heaven. "Hometown boy makes good," my companions and I quipped, delighted at all the commotion and moved by the sincerity of those whose devotion to Pio had brought this about. So the question is, what makes Pio a saint? In fact, what makes anyone a saint?
In the early Church people thought of all baptized believers as saints, but with persecutions against Christians ramping up in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, "saint" came to refer to people who had been killed or imprisoned for refusing to give up their faith. Once the persecutions passed, the definition changed again: saints were those who exhibited great holiness in choosing suffering, usually by renouncing the world and embracing extreme asceticism. Over time, the concept of sainthood expanded and began to include people who lived lives of heroic virtue and performed miracles after their deaths, which comes pretty close to our current definition.
So how do people actually get to be saints? Originally saints were made by acclamation, meaning that lots of people started praying to them after they died because they believed these holy people were with God in heaven. So every little area had its own saints that, by and large, no one else knew about. Around the 12th century popes began to claim the exclusive right to declare saints (the official term is "to canonize," which means to place on the canon, the approved list), but it took another six centuries or so for them to make that claim stick.
Once things started getting official, the canonization process became a long, drawn-out affair modeled on juridical proceedings: someone argued for making this candidate a saint, someone else argued against it, witnesses were called, and everyone hoped to get to the right result. Pope John Paul II changed all that in 1983 and put a new academic model in place: a detailed and rigorous biography of the candidate is compiled so that the pope and those helping him (mainly those who work in a Vatican office called the Congregation for the Cause of Saints) can get the full picture. And what do they need to see? That a person lived a life of great holiness and that people who have prayed to this person have experienced miracles (one miracle has to be confirmed for a person to be beatified, more than one for canonization). Those things taken together stand as evidence that this holy person has indeed joined God in heaven with no stopovers in Purgatory.
Nowadays only the pope can declare someone a saint, but this doesn't mean that the pope gets to decide who goes to heaven. The pope just confirms for the faithful here on earth what God has decided. The distinction gets lost on people sometimes, just like the distinction between venerating saints as those who are special conduits of God's grace and worshipping them as sort of demi-gods themselves. The Church has been fighting that sort of worship for a whole lot of its history, and I'm pretty sure the fight isn't over yet.
Once the Church got into declaring saints, it also began recognizing that certain saints serve as protectors for certain people and things. All kinds of people and things. You name it, Catholics have a patron saint for it. Television? St. Clare of Assisi, because she could remotely view Mass being celebrated. Breastfeeding? St. Giles -- yeah, a guy, strange. Apparently his life of austerity left him so emaciated that God sent a deer to suckle him so that he wouldn't starve to death. Dysfunctional families (yes, you read that right)? Eugene de Mazenod, whose parents divorced when he was young. And our friend Padre Pio, who was canonized in 2002 after his 1999 beatification, is the patron saint of civil defense volunteers. I'll bet the civil defense volunteers in Rome are pretty happy about that.
Read earlier installments of "Catholics Do This but Don't Do That":
#1 - Pray the Rosary
#3 - Genuflect