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Catholic Church Examines Financial Cost Of Sainthood


There are thousands of saints recognized by the Catholic Church. But canonization, the process of declaring a person a saint, requires a long, rigorous and expensive process. Just outside Buffalo in Lackawanna, New York, Our Lady of Victory Basilica is midway through that process for Father Nelson Baker. Father Baker was ordained in 1876 and spent nearly his entire ministry at that church where he developed a small orphanage and a school.

MONSIGNOR PAUL BURKHARDT: He also founded a home for unwed mothers, an adoption program and a foster care program for vulnerable children.

RATH: That's Monsignor Paul Burkhardt, pastor at Our Lady of Victory. He says Rome accepted Father Baker's case back in 1988, and they've been progressing towards canonization ever since.

BURKHARDT: What stands out in Rome's mind most of all is his heroic virtue of charity toward the poor.

RATH: Father Baker is a household name in the Buffalo diocese. Burkhardt says the congregation has enthusiastically contributed to his case.

BURKHARDT: Locally, of course, he's already considered a saint. So there's a lot of support in the western New York and Pennsylvania and New England area and southern Canada. And nationally, we have people who have been attached to the cause who also contribute to the Father Baker Guild on a regular basis.

RATH: The total cost of Father Nelson Baker's canonization, about $250,000. Monsignor Burkhardt says they've raised about half that. Why is so much time and money invested in this process?

The church is very careful about declaring saints. They don't want to make somebody a saint and the next day have to say, oops, you know, there were actually skeletons in this person's closet.

That's John Allen, the associate editor at The Boston Globe.

JOHN ALLEN: You have to get one miracle to beatify someone - that is to declare them blessed - and another miracle, typically, to canonize them - that is to declare them a saint. And those miracle reports have to be scoured by teams of doctors to make sure there's no scientific explanation and by teams of theologians to make sure it passes doctrinal muster. All of that expertise takes time, and it takes money. And then, as I say, the largest single line item in any sainthood process typically is the canonization ceremony at the end.

So to some extent, how expensive making a saint is depends on how popular this figure is and, therefore, how big a crowd they're going to get at the end. Some of the lesser-known causes can be done on the cheap. But if you've got a superstar saint, for example Padre Pio, the famed Capuchin stigmatic in Italy, you can be looking at in excess of $1 million. Groups in the church that have resources are in a better position to be able to do all that.

RATH: And how long does the process typically take?

ALLEN: Well, some processes take centuries because there has not been a documented miracle report or for a variety of different reasons the process just didn't reach conclusion. On the other hand, John Paul II, the late pope, of course, died in 2005. And he is going to be declared a saint by Pope Francis on April 27. That process moved from soup to nuts in a relatively breathtakingly short period of eight years.

RATH: And in terms of the figure who goes from being, you know, venerable or blessed or becoming a full saint, how are their causes benefitted?

ALLEN: Not only is it a kind of papal seal of approval on the whole organization, but of course they get enormous international publicity. That said, I think there are some groups in the church, particularly those who are most directly concerned with outreach to the poor, that sometimes feel a little bit of ambivalence about the whole sainthood thing. But I think the overwhelming majority of Catholic groups feel that it is definitely worth the investment.

RATH: John, thank you very much.

It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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