St. John Paul II’s reform of the procedures for beatifications and canonizations was arguably his most significant decision in terms of the day-to-day piety of Catholics. Without them, St. (Padre) Pio, St. Teresa of Calcutta and St. Gianna Molla, to say nothing of John Paul himself, would not be nourishing the piety of the faithful as canonized saints.

Making saints is the entirety of the Church’s mission. How official saints get “made” – or better recognized – in the life of the Church is thus of supreme importance. Attention ought to be paid to the reforms announced this week by Pope Francis in his letter Maiorem hac dilectionem (Greater love than this). The pope expanded the categories for sainthood to include those who were not martyred in the strict sense – killed in hatred for the faith – but who made an “offering of their life” (oblatio vitae) that led to their death.

Indeed my colleague John Allen considers it among the “most consequential” of the the pontiff’s initiatives. He also gives examples of possible candidates in this category. Consider nuns who choose to serve in a desperately violent area out of love for the otherwise abandoned people there. They might be killed for reasons other than hatred of the faith, but in choosing to go there in the first place they were knowingly and freely willing to put their lives in danger. They made an oblatio vitae.

The case that immediately comes to mind is that of St. Maximilian Kolbe. That he was in Auschwitz was certainly due to his Catholic apostolates, but he was not killed for any particular truth of the faith. Rather, he offered to take the place of another prisoner condemned to death in the starvation bunker. It would seem that oblatio vitae exactly describes what Kolbe did.

What are the implications of Mairoem hac dilectionem?

To take the Kolbe case first, his path to the altars would have been simpler. Because he was not martyred in the traditional sense, he was beatified by Blessed Paul VI for the outstanding holiness and apostolic fruitfulness of his life – he was one of the most extraordinary priests in the world long before he got to Auschwitz – not the manner of his death.

John Paul took the decision to canonize him as a “martyr of charity,” an anomalous category that nonetheless corresponded to popular piety. Today Kolbe would go through on the grounds of oblatio vitae, meaning that he would not be venerated as a martyr.

Mairoem hac dilectionem does not create another category of martyrdom, as John Paul’s decision in the Kolbe case implicitly did, but an alternative category. Martyrs, for example, do not require a miracle for beatification; oblatio vitae cases still do.

While doctrinally it does not matter on what grounds candidates are beatified – the truth is that they are in heaven – it does make a difference liturgically and in the spirituality of their cult.

Does that mean that only those killed directly for professing the faith will now be considered martyrs? Not exactly. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that a martyr is not only the one who “refuses to deny a truth of the faith, but he who dies for the sake of some virtue, or to avoid sin against any commandment.”

That would apply to the case of St. Maria Goretti, the 11-year-old girl who refused the sexual advances of her 18-year-old neighbour. She explicitly refused him on the grounds that what he desired was sinful. He then attempted to rape her, and when she rebuffed him, he stabbed her multiple times, killing her.

When beatified and canonized by Venerable Pius XII, it was not under any implicitly expanded concept of martyrdom. She was a martyr as St. Thomas Aquinas described it; she died as a direct consequence of refusing a sinful act in the face of threats.

The new criteria would have certainly made the cause of Blessed Oscar Romero more straightforward. He was assassinated while celebrating Mass. It is unlikely that the regime’s assassins, Catholics themselves, had a specific hatred of the Catholic faith, per se. They certainly hated Romero for protesting their injustices.

In declaring him a martyr, Pope Francis ruled that it was his Catholic faith which led Romero to protest injustice, and so his assassins killed him because of what his faith impelled him to do. Today, the category of oblatio vitae would be easy to apply to Romero, for he clearly knew that in continuing to speak out he was putting his life in danger.

Will Mairorem therefore make such cases easier to advance in the future?

Perhaps so, but perhaps not. The new category of oblatio vitae still requires candidates to have a miracle attributed to their intercession. Candidates declared to be martyrs do not require a miracle for beatification, though a miracle after beatification is always required for canonization. Therefore, the designation of martyrdom might still be sought, as it does not require waiting for a miracle.

On the other hand, candidates for beatification are required to have lived a life of “heroic virtue.” The oblatio vitae category requires a life of “ordinary virtue,” which should be reasonably easy to demonstrate for anyone proposed for beatification. Thus some cases may advance more quickly as the demonstration of virtue is less demanding.

Consider the case of Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Catholic in the Pakistani federal cabinet, who served as minister for minority affairs. As outspoken critic of the Islamic nation’s blasphemy laws, which are used to persecute Christians, Bhatti was assassinated in March 2011. Not long before his murder, Bhatti was offered asylum in Canada upon a visit to then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Harper told him that he could take refuge in Canada, as he would be killed if he returned to Pakistan. He chose to go back. He knew that he went home to die. His cause for beatification was opened last year by the bishops of Pakistan. How his case now proceeds will be a good illustration of how the new rules will work.

Bhatti would likely qualify for the oblatio vitae process. There is also an argument that he was a martyr because his
assassin hated the Christian faith – or at least hated that Bhatti was a public official who argued for the rights of “infidels.”

So on what grounds will his case be advanced?

It likely depends upon whether the postulator of the cause is aware of a case that might be judged miraculous. If there is a plausible miracle to submit, the oblatio vitae route would be quicker. If there is no apparent miracle, then it will likely be better to argue for a decree of martyrdom, analogous to the Romero case.

Thus in some cases, Maiorem might not make a great deal of difference. But it will in some cases, making the progress toward beatification more rapid. Given that renewed veneration of the saints, especially in contemporary causes of Christian persecution, is a key aspect of the new evangelization, the new rules are welcome.