Can a dead man pray? How the Catholic Church makes saints

Pope Benedict XVI led a beatification Mass for Cardinal John Henry Newman at Cofton Park in Birmingham September 19, 2010.Reuters

The Vatican is investigating reports that the Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman has been responsible for another miracle. If it is proved to the investigators' satisfaction it may lead to his being declared a saint. The file has now been passed to the Congregation for the Causes of Sainthood; if Vatican theologians and doctors conclude the healing is a divine sign of Newman's sanctity the Pope will be invited to canonise him. 

I'm confused. I thought he was dead?

He is. John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was arguably the greatest English theologian the Catholic Church ever produced, though the Church of England has to take a good deal of credit too; he was only received into the Roman Catholic Church when he was 44. As an Anglican he helped restore the High Church tradition and as a Catholic he produced very significant works on Church-state relations, education and the philosophy of religion. He wrote the hymns Lead, kindly light and Praise to the holiest in the height, the latter from his poem The Dream of Gerontius, which was set to music by Elgar.

My point is, what's all this about?

I beg your pardon, I got quite carried away. The Roman Catholic Church nowadays sets quite a high bar to sainthood. There are strict criteria instituted by Pope John Paul II in 1982: a diocese decides on a likely candidate and an intensive survey of his or her life and works begins. The candidate passes through the stages of being recognised as a Servant of God, Venerable, Blessed and finally Saint. One of the criteria is that you have to have been responsible for at least two miracles, usually of the healing variety. Newman was declared "Blessed" in 2010 at a mass in Birmingham after his first, the healing of Deacon Jack Sullivan from a serious spinal disorder. Now there's another, the otherwise inexplicable healing of a young American mother who prayed for his intercession when she became afflicted by a "life-threatening pregnancy".

I don't mean to be picky, but may I return to my original question?

You need to be clear what the Church means when it ascribes a miracle to a saint. Protestants tend to teach that once a Christian's dead, they're in heaven and that's that. Catholics have a much more developed idea of the Communion of Saints. Just as you might ask a friend to pray for you, Catholics believe you can ask a deceased saint to pray for you; and "the prayer of a righteous person is powerful" (James 5:16). In Revelation the saints in heaven are depicted as praying, presumbably for the saints on earth.

So this good lady prayed to Newman?

No. Catholics do not pray to saints as such, though it sometimes looks like that (and is one of the reasons Protestants reacted against the practice). They talk of praying "with the saints", not "to" them. All prayers are directed to God. So Deacon Jack and (possibly) the American lady have been healed by God, having asked Newman to pray for them. The answer to prayer is a sign of Newman's sanctity. 

I think I believe in healing. They talk a lot about it in my church.

Many churches do, and most Christians would say that God does heal today. However, the Catholic Church is far more rigorous than many Protestant churches would be in claiming miraculous healings. It wants to be absolutely sure that it's ruled out every other explanation and takes advice from highly-qualified doctors.

That seems sensible enough.

The charismatic-type churches and healing practitioners that claim healing miracles in their services are generally unwilling to put their claims to a similar level of testing, which tends to undermine their credibility. Whatever you think of the Catholic system, they take the view that they would rather have no miracles than ones that have a perfectly rational explanation.

So, two miracles and then you're a saint? It sounds a bit like an exam.

There's rather more to it than that. A saint is someone who has lived a life of extraordinary or heroic virtue. The formal process is just a way of recognising that. Catholics believe acknowledging the saint's saintliness is a way of honouring this and of giving the faithful confidence to pray for their intercession. Protestants find the whole thing a bit odd, but there's nothing intrinsically weird about it.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods