CARDINAL OTUNGA

Explainer: Steps to Sainthood in the Catholic Church

Request for canonisation, Determination, Beatification and Canonisation.

In Summary
  • Evidence is gathered on the person's life and deeds, including witness testimonies.
  • The Congregation for the Causes of Saints scrutinises the evidence presented of the candidate's holiness, work and signs that people have been drawn to prayer through their example.
A past celebration of the life of Cardinal Maurice Otunga at the Holy Family Basilica
A past celebration of the life of Cardinal Maurice Otunga at the Holy Family Basilica
Image: JACK OWUOR

On September 6, the Catholic Church in Kenya commemorated the 17th anniversary of Maurice Michael Cardinal Otunga’s death.

The first Kenyan cardinal in the history of the Catholic Church, Otunga died in 2003 at the age of 80.

The church told faithful at the memorial that his sainthood journey is on course.

Sainthood is among the highest honours in the Catholic Church. When a person is canonised a saint, their name is added to the official catalogue of saints. Masses and feast days can be celebrated in their honour and churches can then be dedicated in the saint’s memory. Their name can also be used in public prayers.

There are four steps to sainthood in the Catholic Church.

Step one: Request for canonisation (Candidate named Servant of God)

The first step to sainthood is a five-year wait following the death of the candidate for canonisation. According to the BBC, “this is to allow time for emotions following the death to calm down, and to ensure that the individual's case can be evaluated objectively”.

However, the Pope can waive the waiting period. For instance, Pope Benedict XVI set aside the waiting period for his predecessor, John Paul II, in 2005.

Once the five years are up, or a waiver is granted, the bishop of the diocese where the person died can open an investigation into the life of the individual, to see whether they lived their lives with sufficient holiness and virtue to be considered for sainthood.

Cardinal Otunga’s sainthood journey began in 2009, six years after his death. The Archbishop of Nairobi, John Cardinal Njue petitioned the Vatican-based Congregation for the Causes of Saints to approve the process. The request was granted and Otunga became a Servant of God.

Step two: Determination (Candidate named Venerable)

Evidence is gathered on the person's life and deeds, including witness testimonies. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints scrutinises the evidence presented of the candidate's holiness, work and signs that people have been drawn to prayer through their example.

If the Congregation approves the case, it is passed to the Pope.

If the Pope decides that the person lived a life of "heroic virtue", they can then be called "venerable".

Cardinal Otunga has passed this stage.

But Sister Esther Ichugu, secretary to Otunga’s beatification committee says a comprehensive biography of his work is still being compiled. 

It was 3am, his soul was leaving his body. His body was cold and the skin was changing colour. The life support machine went flat and he was pronounced medically dead
Evaline Mahiri whose son was healed after praying for Maurice Cardinal Otunga’s intercession

Step three: Beatification (Candidate named Blessed)

At this stage of the cause, a miracle brought about by the intercession of the saint must occur and be verified by the Congregation.

The prayers being granted are seen as proof that the individual is already in heaven, and hence able to intercede with God on others' behalf. Incidents need to be "verified" by evidence before they are accepted as miracles.

Once the person is beatified he or she is named “Blessed”. That person can be officially honoured in his or her city, diocese, region, or religious community.

There is an exception for the requirement: a martyr can be beatified without a verified miracle.

The canonisation journey of Cardinal Otunga is currently in this stage.

Cardinal Otunga’s chances of passing this stage are strong after prayers through him are believed to have led to the healing in 2009, of Lance Chacha Mahiri, a class five boy who had kidney failure.

Lance’s mother Evaline Mahiri said when her son’s condition grew worse, she silently prayed for his recovery.

“It was 3am, his soul was leaving his body. His body was cold and the skin was changing colour. The life support machine went flat and he was pronounced medically dead,” Mahiri is quoted by the Standard.

Within minutes of praying for Maurice Cardinal Otunga’s intercession, Mahiri said Lance became better. The life support machine began working again. Two days later, he left the ICU.

She addressed worshippers who included Cardinal Njue and vice chancellor Paul Wainaina at the Kenyatta University chapel on January 20 last year.

Step four: Canonisation (Candidate becomes saint)

After being beatified, another miracle is required for the person to be canonised and officially declared a saint. Martyrs, however, only need one verified miracle to become a saint.

During the canonisation ceremony, the Pope conducts a special Mass, reading aloud the individual's life history and then chanting a prayer in Latin that declares the person a saint. Once a person is canonised, he or she is officially declared a “Saint”.