Canonizations and Infallibility

And More on Churching After Childbirth

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ROME, AUG. 23, 2011 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: When the Pope presides over an ordinary public consistory regarding the cause of canonization of three blesseds, as Benedict XVI did last February in the Vatican Apostolic Palace for Guido Maria Conforti, Luigi Guanella and Bonifacia Rodríguez de Castro, is the proclamation made at the consistory — that the blesseds are saints — an infallible proclamation? — R.J., Villanova, Pennsylvania

A: The short answer is no, or at least not yet. The reason is that the decisions emanating from the consistory are juridical and not theological in nature.

A public consistory is a gathering of cardinals convoked by the Holy Father for a specific purpose. Some others, such as apostolic prothonotaries, the auditors of the Roman Rota, and other prelates, may also attend a public consistory. The purpose is usually either to elevate new cardinals or, at least technically, to seek the cardinals’ opinion regarding the canonization of blessed.

By “technically” I mean that the cardinals have usually already given their opinion and the canonization has already been decided. Thus, nowadays the consistory is a kind of legal fiction in which everybody ceremoniously votes “yes.” At the end of the consistory the Holy Father accepts the opinion of the cardinals and announces the date or dates on which the canonizations will take place.

The juridical nature of the consistory can be seen from one of Blessed John Paul II’s final acts as Pope. In February 2005 he wrote to his secretary of state regarding a consistory he was unable to attend. He said:

“I had convoked the Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops living in Rome for the celebration of an Ordinary Public Consistory, for today, 24 February, in view of the conclusion of the process of the Causes of Canonization of some Blesseds. I have been advised, for the sake of prudence, to follow this event from my apartment via television link-up. Consequently, I entrust to you, Venerable Cardinal, the duty to preside at this reunion, giving you the authority to conduct in my name the scheduled events.

“Therefore, I wish to announce that, following the favorable opinion that has already been submitted in writing by the Venerable Cardinals throughout the world and by the Archbishops and Bishops who live in Rome, I intend to set Sunday, 23 October 2005, as the date for the Canonization of the following five Blesseds: Bl. Józef Bilczewski, Bishop; Bl. Gaetano Catanoso, priest, Founder of the Congregation of the Daughters of Veronica, Missionaries of the Holy Face; Bl. Zygmunt Gorazdowski, priest, Founder of the Congregation of the Sisters of St Joseph; Bl. Alberto Hurtado Cruchaga, priest of the Society of Jesus; Bl. Felix of Nicosia (in the world: Filippo Giacomo Amoroso), Religious of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin .…

“United in prayer to the participants in the Ordinary Public Consistory, I ask you, Venerable Cardinal, to preside at the celebration of the Hour of Sext, as I cordially impart my Apostolic Blessing to all.”

As we know, it was Benedict XVI who would eventually canonize these saints during the concluding Mass of the Synod on the Eucharist.

Therefore it is clear that the consistory does not imply an exercise of infallibility. On the one hand, the Holy Father delegated the declaration to a cardinal; second, it consisted in the proclamation of a date of canonization — and not in the canonization itself.

The exercise of infallibility comes only when the pope himself proclaims a person a saint. The proclamation is made in a Latin formula of which we offer an approximate translation:

“In honor of the Holy Trinity, for the exaltation of the Catholic faith and the increase of the Christian life, with the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul and of Our Own, after long reflection, having invoked divine assistance many times and listened to the opinion of many of our Brothers in the Episcopate, We declare and define as Saint Blessed N. and inscribe his/her name in the list of the saints and establish that throughout the Church they be devoutly honored among the saints.”

In the case above, Benedict XVI proceeded as planned with the canonization on the date determined by John Paul II. In theory at least, he could have postponed, brought forward or even canceled the canonization ceremony. In such a hypothetical and unlikely case, I would say that since the process of canonization had already been concluded, a future pope could simply set a new date for the canonization. However, until the actual rite of canonization is performed, the blessed cannot be accorded the title and liturgical honors of a saint.

Although beatification does not imply the same degree of commitment by the Church, it is notable that Benedict XVI did postpone indefinitely a beatification whose date had already been set by John Paul II. This was because certain new information on the candidate had surfaced in the meantime which Benedict XVI believed required clarification before proceeding with the beatification.

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Follow-up: Churching After Childbirth

With respect to our reply on the churching of women after childbirth (see July 26), a Mississippi reader mildly chided me for being too “Novus Ordo centered” and leaving out the fact that some form of churching exists in other Catholic rites.

He wrote: “When we had our fifth child over 10 years ago, the day of the baby’s baptism [into the Byzantine (Ruthenian Greek rite) Catholic Church] my wife was ‘churched’ and our baby daughter was presented prior to the commencement of the Divine Liturgy, during which she was baptized, chrismated, and given her first Holy Communion. The churching was a beautiful service — our little girl was held aloft and moved in the sign of the cross before the holy icons.”

One of the advantages of this follow-up section is the possibility of making amends for such omissions, although I think our reader will understand that this column’s character as a brief response to concrete questions does not always allow us to cover every possible angle of a question.

It is also worthwhile pointing out that churching may still be imparted according to the norms of the pre 1962 rites of blessing.

Another reader, from Honduras, described a common custom in that country: “In the part of Honduras where I am volunteering there is the custom for the parents to present the child, usually at Mass, about 40 days after the birth of the child. The child and parents are blessed, and the priest usually raises the child up above his head, facing the congregation, presenting the child to the assembly. This most often takes place at Masses in rural villages, but I have also experienced it at Masses in smaller churches in town.”

Similar customs probably exist elsewhere. Since the rite of blessing a mother does not foresee its being held during the celebration of Mass, I believe that it is not correct to present the child during Mass. I see less difficulty, however, in doing so immediately before or, preferably, after the Eucharistic celebration.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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