All Christians aspire to become saints, that is, persons in heaven (officially canonized or not), who lived lives of great charity and heroic virtues and who are worthy of imitation.
In official Church procedures there are three steps to sainthood: a candidate becomes “Venerable,” then “Blessed” and then “Saint.” Venerable is the title given to a deceased person recognized formally by the pope as having lived heroic virtues. To be beatified and recognized as a Blessed, one miracle acquired through the candidate’s intercession is required in addition to recognition of heroic virtue or martyrdom. Canonization requires a second miracle after beatification, though a pope may waive these requirements. (A miracle is not required prior to a martyr’s beatification, but one is required before canonization.)
Before beatification and canonization procedures are assigned to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (instituted in 1588 by Pope Sixtus V) and to the Holy Father himself, it was the “vox populi” or “spontaneous local attribution” which led to the proclaiming of saints. This was the case, for example, of St. Anthony of Padua. The first formal canonization which resulted from a papally mandated investigation was in 993 when Pope John XV declared Ulric of Augsburg a saint. Pope Urban VIII required Vatican involvement in all sainthood causes in 1634.
No precise count exists of those who have been proclaimed saints since the first centuries. However, in 1988, to mark the 4th centenary, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints published the first “Index ac status Causarum.” This book and its subsequent supplements, written entirely in Latin, are considered the definitive index of all causes which have been presented to the congregation since its institution.
Excluding beatifications and canonizations celebrated by Pope John Paul, these volumes show that 3,464 causes are pending, 1,385 cults have been confirmed and 565 blesseds and 285 saints have been proclaimed. These actual totals are probably slightly higher, because in several cases the name of the person was accompanied by the words “and companions,” without specifying a number.
As of October 3, 2004, Pope John Paul II had proclaimed 1,337 Blesseds and canonized 483 saints.
Information taken from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Backgrounder: Making Saints. Reproduced with permission of the USCCB.