Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier became the first Jesuit saints 400 years ago. Nowadays over a hundred Jesuit cases are waiting for beatification or canonization. How to become a saint? Can people make miracles? What can we learn from martyrs and confessors? That’s what we were talking about with the general postulator of the Society of Jesus, Father Pascual Cebollada SJ.
– The general postulator is one of the General Curia’s major officials. Could you summarize what your responsibilities are?
– I have two main works here: causes of beatification and canonization on one hand, liturgical issues on the other hand. As postulator I ask the Church – by means of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints – to start and go on with someone’s canonization process on behalf of the Jesuits. I manage more or less a hundred cases in different phases. Half of them are sleeping, because there is no work to be done. Twenty are very active, but don’t need much to do, and around thirty cases require handling day by day. In the meantime we have liturgical issues that we have to deal with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
– What kind of issues are they?
– It seems obvious that every province has its patron saint, but first we need a decree of the Congregation in order to be appointed. The second we do is updating old lectionaries and missals of the Jesuits in different languages. Over the last years we have submitted in the Congregation the text in Croatian, Polish, German and French. And we also keep editing the Liturgy of the Hours, the breviary of the Society of Jesus, because we have new saints, new blessed persons, and the date of some of our feasts has been changed.
– That’s so much work for one person…
– I have a secretary, who helps me 34 hours a week and does her job very well. In addition, I rely a lot on local people. I appoint a man or woman for every case as a vice postulator. For instance, in the case of Hungarian Jesuit novice, Stephen Kaszap I currently work with Zoltán Koronkai SJ, the socius of the provincial, beside Szabolcs Sajgó SJ, who is in sabbatical now. But in the end all cases come to me, I have to read, correct everything, so sometimes there is a traffic jam in my office. (He laughs.) I jump every day from one case to another.
– You have just returned from Central America, where a Jesuit priest from Salvador and his companions have been beatified. Just in bullet points: what does the process of canonization of a Jesuit look like?
– Everything starts with people of God praying and venerating someone who is dead and who has the reputation of sanctity. If they have a devotion to this person and people think that he or she could be a saint, the promoters have to get in touch with the bishop of the local diocese, who can start the process officially. If this person is a Jesuit, they write to Rome and ask Father General, whether he agrees. If both the bishop and the general agree, we have to write a short report called supplex libellus, which introduces the candidate – called also Servant of God –, explains who could be witnesses, and where we can find documents about this person. The process starts at the diocese with collecting oral testimonies, as well as published and unpublished documents. When this work is done, the files are closed and sent to Rome. Then my office has to start the second part: write a positio – a kind of doctoral work of 400–800 pages – based on collected information and submit it to the Vatican. They study and judge it and decide if the person is worthy to be venerable.
– Does a venerable person need a miracle to become a saint?
– Yes, and that’s why we are asking God for a miracle at our sleeping cases. Miracles are done by God, not by the saints, only with their intercession. A martyr doesn’t need a miracle to become blessed, only to become a saint, like Rutilio Grande from Salvador. But as for the confessors, even if they are already venerable persons – like Stephen Kaszap –, the Church has to prove one miracle done with their intercession to declare them as blessed and by another one as saints.
– The canonization of Saint Ignatius and Francis Xavier was also handled by one of your ancestors, the Jesuit general postulator?
– There has always been someone who acted as postulator at the Society, but this wasn’t a permanent duty before the 19th century, because the cases were not as frequent as now. In those times the superior generals occasionally asked someone to be the postulator. The canonization process of Saint Ignatius was started by Francis Borgia, the third general of the Society. He asked the Spanish Jesuit Pedro de Ribadeneira to be the postulator. He was also a witness, so he had to choose between the roles. Finally, the postulator became another Jesuit, Gaspar de Pedrosa.
– Ignatius was examined by the Inquisition but he proved to be out of suspicion. Then in less than a hundred years, he became a saint. Why did the opinion of the Church change so rapidly?
– It was expected that the Inquisition wanted to know about a person who started preaching publicly, who he is, so Ignatius went through these procedures. But as founder of the Society of Jesus, he was recognised and approved by the Church. And don’t forget: he was one of the main defenders of the Catholic church at the time of protestantism. He died in Rome in 1556 with the reputation of sanctity. Some people cried publicly: ‘The saint is dead’. There were many condolences, people visited and prayed at his tomb, asked for some properties of him, painted a portrait and remembered his death year after year.
– The canonization process officially started 49 years after his death. Was there something special about his process?
– We know that there were more than 500 oral witnesses, and the diocesan process was pursued in many places. Now we have good mail companies, but it is makes one wonder how they sent so many papers 400 years ago to Rome. Thank God, it seems nothing was lost. There were some advocates of the Vatican, canon lawyers who examined all of them. The process was slow, and there were also political issues: each powerful European kingdom wanted to canonize their candidates. Ignatius was a well known person, so high rank people wrote postulatory letters to support his case, for instance king Philip II of Spain, Mary of Austria, king Sigismundus of Poland, Henry IV of France, Maximilian of Bayern and others. Nowadays I also ask postulatory letters from bishops, cardinals or lay people; these can be one of the reasons to start the process.
– Beatification took place in 1609, pope Gregory XV canonized Saint Ignatius on 12 March 1622. What miracles are attributed to him?
– Ribadeneira wrote and published a biography of Ignatius in 1572 in Latin, in which he didn’t mention his miracles, though he knew of them. It was because he said: ‘The miracle of Saint Ignatius was the Society of Jesus’, that is, the Jesuits. The second edition – with the stories of miracles – was published some years later in Spanish. Globally there were 15 miracles recognised in his lifetime and twenty miracles after his death. The canon lawyers in Rome selected ten of them, all healing – seeing, cancer, bones, deathly fever – in Spain, in Italy and in a small place in Mexico, where people also heard about him.
– What does the holiness of his life teach us?
– What we can learn from the life of every saint is the permanent search for God. And also the service to humanity and the Church, especially where there is great need for it – which is very typical for the Jesuits. But we have to be precise: more needed means not only border situations, maybe the most needed service is sending good theologians or formators to the seminaries, like Rutilio Grande in Salvador.
– Ignatius has been canonized together with Francis Xavier, Teresa of Ávila, Philip Neri and Isidore the Farmer. What did they have in common?
– Isidore the Farmer, the patron saint of my hometown Madrid, was a medieval person (died in 1172), his process was the first. All the other four represented post Tridentine spirituality. They belong to the same time, atmosphere and typical spirituality of the Council of Trent and the Catholic Reform of the Church. Italian Philippo Neri was a very well known and popular figure in Rome. Teresa of Ávila was a Spanish woman of a marvelous personality, refounder of the Carmelites. We’ve already discussed Ignatius; the process of Francis Xavier started with the support of king John III of Portugal. He supported the Jesuits very much and he asked for a missionary to India, who eventually became Xavier.
– Rumour has it that the canonization of Ignatius, known as a less attractive personality, was due to the popularity of Francis Xavier. Are the two cases related?
– Every process has to be pursued independently. Even if you have a married couple or a group, you have to prove the sanctity of each one independently. Ignatius was beatified ten years before Xavier. Pope Gregory XV was also very fond of Xavier, and he pushed him to the canonization. At the same time the Vatican set up the congregation Propaganda fide – nowadays called Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples – to encourage the mission all over the world, and Xavier was a great missionary, later he became the co-patron of the missions.
– In a video you’re introducing a beautiful room of the General Curia dedicated to Jesuit saints. Could you tell us more about it?
– This lovely room is right in front of my office. It was built almost a hundred years ago and decorated little by little with portraits of Jesuit saints. The cupboards there contain documents of many of our cases. I have told you that half of our cases are sleeping – well, they actually sleep there. For instance, old processes in China, Spain, Japan and Brazil are waiting there, so that maybe they will wake up one day. They are also available for research, if they are not restricted documents.
– What other treasures, Jesuit saints’ relics do you have here?
– We also have some relics there. The Church keeps them for public veneration, because they remind us of the testimony of the saints. As you know, many altars have relics of a saint, especially of a martyr inside. It is rooted in the first century, when the bodies of martyrs laid close to the place where Christians celebrated the mass in the catacombs of Rome. But there are many ways to get in touch with saints, not only honouring their relics: reading and learning from their life, praying to them, sharing their story with others – as we are doing in this interview as well.
– You have been the general postulator of the Society since 2017. What rewards can you find in this this job?
– Great satisfaction. I think that saints, the blessed and venerable persons are the best heritage of the Jesuits. Our Society has a very rich heritage, for instance, Baroque art and theater in Central Europe, but our people are the best that what we can offer to the Church and the world.
– What does it mean to you to have an insight into the lives of these saints?
– To see God’s work in so diverse ways. Every saint is so different, in the way they lived and especially died. Of course they have a lot in common: they are heroes, extraordinary people from a religious point of view, but it is better to see not only who they were, but how God worked in them. It will not work if I think it is enough to study them, and then I will know what to do to become a saint. It is God who helps us to become saints, because we are just imitating the sainthood of God. It is also very consoling and challenging how generously Jesuit saints respond to the vocation. They abandoned themselves with an enormous generosity to what God asks.
– What can we learn from their lives?
– To search God and his will in our lives. They were men and women of their time and place, engaged with the people among whom they were living. Especially the martyrs: for instance Rutilio Grande, the latest blessed Jesuit was very shocked of the injustice in his country, so he spoke about it in his homilies from the religious point of view. He knew he was risking his life, but he remained there. In this way they responded to God and the needs of humanity.