The Canonization of Sr. Alphonsa



People who die at the end of an extremely virtuous life are raised to the honours of the alter and the process leading to this is both long and laborious. During the days before the Vatican Synod this process used to be conducted in two stages, the Diocesan process and the Apostolic process. The apostolic process was more or less a repetition of the Diocesan process. The prelates of the church who attended the second Vatican synod submitted a representation to the pope saying that it would be desirable to simplify the process making the two stages mutually complementary.


In response to the petitions Pope Paul VI issued a decree simplifying the canonization process and avoiding repetitious proceedings. In the light of the modified canon laws Pope John Paul II further simplified the process subsequently. However Sr. Alphonsa’s Canonionization process was conducted as per the pre-Vatican synod procedure.


The Diocesan process is conducted usually at the place where the Servant of God lived and died. The bishop of the diocese begins the preliminary process on his own accord or in response to the request of others. If the bishop is convinced that the sanctity of the dead person’s life deserves a closer examination, he will decide to begin the Diocesan process.
The first step of the Diocesan process is to appoint a priest living in Rome as the postulator. The responsibility of the postulator it is to get in touch with the congregation for the canonization of saints and perform such duties as per needed for the canonization of the servant of God. A priest belonging to the diocese is appointed the Vice-postulator to help the postulator who is in Rome. The main duty of the Vice-postulator is to gather and provide to the postulator such information as he calls for. The Vice-postulator is also the postulator in the diocese.


The bishop now proceeds to organize a Tribunal with the permission of the sacred congregation. There are three courts and each court consist of a minimum of three judges, a defender of faith, a notary, and a messenger. The members of all three courts can be the same persons or different ones. Each member of the Tribunal is required to take an oath affirming that he will discharge his duties conscientiously and that he will not reveal or otherwise make known the proceedings of the Tribunal till they are officially published. The Vice-Postulator should take the oath that he will not exert any unlawful influence or pressure on the witnesses who come to dispose before the Tribunal.


The first Tribunal examines the servant of God’s writings letters, articles, books etc to see if they contain any matter that contravenes the teachings of the church or goes against moral principles. The second Tribunal is more important. It examines the witnesses who have known the servant of God closely while alive and decides on the basis of the depositions of the witnesses whether the deceased saintly person practised the Christian virtues heroically. Besides this, the second Tribunal evaluates the extent of the popular devotions the dead person enjoys and investigates into the truth of the miracles attributed to his/her intercession. The third Tribunal needs to concern itself with only one matter-whether the public have already accorded to the servant of God the veneration which is due only to saints. The tribunal will be located either at a church or within the premises of a suitable institution.


The proceedings get started when the Vice-Postulator submits to the Tribunal a short treatise on the life and works of the dead person along with a list of persons who can depose before it authentically about the matters dealt with in the treatise. The witnesses are examined on the basis of a long questionnaire received from the sacred congregation. Only one witness is examined at a time. Witnesses also have to take the oath of secrecy.


Once the process has started, the dead person comes to be referred to as Servant of God.


When the Tribunals have finished their works, a comprehensive report of the proceedings is sent to the sacred congregation in Rome. This report is subjected to close examination and if the congregation upholds the findings of the Tribunal, permission is given for starting the apostolic process. The constitution and functions of the apostolic Tribunal are the same as those of the Diocese Tribunal. The apostolic Tribunal considers mainly two issues, whether the servant of God’s practice of the Christian virtues is heroic and whether the miracles attributed to him are credible ad genuine ones. If their finding are upheld the servant of God is raised to the rank of the blessed. If it can be proved that one more miracle occurred after the beatification the blessed person is raised to sainthood.


So far we have been discussing the canonization process in general; now let us come to the canonization process gone through in the case of St. Alphonsa. As the news about the sanctity of Sr. Alphonsa spread far and wide and miracles obtained through her intercession were reported from various quarters, there arose the demand that steps should be taken to initiate the beatification process in the case of Alphonsa. The bishop had to satisfy himself that there were enough reasons for starting the canonization process. So he directed Fr.J.C Kappen to prepare a preliminary report so as to decide whether there is a case for starting the proceedings. Fr. Kappen made a thorough study of the subject on which he was to write the report. He visited all the places and institutions associated with her life. He contacted a lot of people who knew Alphonsa and gathered detailed information from them. He met those who claimed to have received miraculous favours through her intercession. Fr. J.C. Kappen Submitted his report to Mar Sebastian Vayalil, bishop of Palai, with the recommendation that steps be taken to initiate the canonization process.


Acting upon the report submitted by Fr. J.C. Kappen the bishop appointed Fr. Fortunato Schippioni O.F.M. the postulator and Fr. Kappen the Vice-Postulator respectively. Following this, the first Tribunal was set up with Fr. Romeo Thomas C.M.I. as the chief judge. The Diocesan Tribunal was formally inaugurated by H.E. Euglene Cardinal Tisserant at Bharananganam on 2 Dec.1953.


The tribunal collected all the available writing of Sr.Alphonsa and after translating them in to Latin sent them to the sacred congregation for the canonization of saints. After studying these writings in detail, the congregation sent a ‘nothing objectionable’ certificate on 7 Jan.1970.


The second Tribunal was set up in 1955 with Fr. Romeo Thomas himself as the chief judge. It functioned till 1960. On April 13,1957 the Tribunal had the body of Sr. Alphonsa exhumed from the grave and examined the remains closely. The bishop of Palai, the members of the Tribunal, a team of three doctors and a few important persons associated with the canonization process were present on that occasion. It is the duty of the Tribunal to exhume the body of the servant of God so as to verify whether the remains are those of the servant of God himself/herself. In the case of Sr. Alphonsa only the bones remained by way of relics; the doctors examined the relies carefully and prepared a detailed report. The remains were wrapped in durable cloth and placed them back in a zinc coffin. The zinc coffin was placed inside to a larger coffin made of African teak. The remains were reinterred after putting wooden coffin inside a stainless steel one. When after 28 years the tom was reopened on 12 April, 1985, the wooden coffin had completely disintegrated . The zinc coffin had partially decayed but the stainless steel one was more or less intact. The relics were found in the same condition as they were in 1957.


In 1960 the third Tribunal was set up without changing the judges. This Tribunal concluded its works in 1962. A combined meeting of all three Tribunal was held on 27 Sept.1962 and the documents were formally signed.


The Tribunal met a total of 822 times in nine years. If examined 126 witnesses. The Tribunal documents, translated into Latin, ran into more than 10,000 pages. These documents , bound into 12 volumes, were submitted to the sacred congregation in Rome in October by Bishop Sebastian Vayalil personally. Rev.Fr. Cairoli, the new postulator (Fr. Schipioni had died by then) prepared a summary of the voluminous report under the supervision of the sacred congregation. This summary was forwared to the Defender of faith in the congregation for this remarks and objections, if any The Defender of faith submitted his report on 3 July 1976. He had raised some objection in his report and the advocate for the cause of Sr. Alphonsa replied to them on 3 March, 1977.


The Summary of the Diocesan process, the objections raised by the defender of faith, the answers there unto by the advocate and a bunch of Postulatory letters written by eminent men and women to request the Pope to start the apostolic process were printed and bound into a volume. Copies of this volume were submitted to the sacred congregation for their verdict even in 1977. On 1 June, 1979, a Decree was issued by the secret congregation endorsing the Diocesan process and granting permission to start the apostolic process. This was followed by another Decree accepting the bishop’s submission that no public veneration had been accorded to Sr. Alphonsa. On 19 April, 1980 yet another Decree was issued authorizing the bishop of Palai to begin the apostolic process relating to the practice of virtues by Sr. Alphonsa, in the diocese itself. The Decree contains also the questionnaire to be used for conducting the examination of the witnesses.


On 15 July, 1980 the bishop of Palai constituted a Tribunal to start the apostolic process. Fr. George Nedumgatt S.J. who was professor of canon laws at the Pontifical Oriental Institute Rome was appointed the chief judge of the Tribunal. When Fr. Nedumgatt had to return to Rome before the work of the Tribunal was finished, Fr.Jacob Kollaparambil who was a judge in the Tribunal became the chief judge. The Tribunal met 146 times and examined a total of 46 witnesses. The depositions of the witnesses were translated into Latin. The report prepared by the Apostolic Tribunal was sent to Rome through the Pro nuncio by the end of 1981. The Congregation sent the report to the postulator ,who was to prepare a summary of it.


The Summary the Postulator prepared, the summary of the Diocesan process, the life of Sr. Alphonsa, and a resume of the proof for Sr. Alphonsa’s sanctity were printed in the form of a book and copies of this book were distributed among the members of the sacred congregation. The sacred congregation gave copies of this book to a panel of theologians. The panel studied the report: individually and each member passed on his report to the congregation. Copies of these individual reports were made available to each one of the eight member team. These theologians met on 10 July 1984 and held discussions on the report. In the light of these discussions they unanimously concluded that Sr. Alphonsa had practised the Christian virtues heroically. They submitted their report to the sacred congregation to this effect. The congregation now sent the report it had sent to the theologians along with the report submitted by the theologians to the cardinals of the sacred congregation. The congress of cardinals which met on 23Oct. 1984 declared categorically that Sr.Alphonsa during her life practised the Christian virtues heroically. This decision of the congress of cardinals was intimated to the Pope by the secretary of the sacred congregation for the canonization of saints, Cardinal Pallazzini. The Holy Father authorized the sacred congregation to issue the Decree stating that Sr. Alphonsa had heroically practised virtues during her life time. Accordingly the Decree was promulgated on 9 Nov. 1984 in the presence of the Pope.


The Sacred congregation had sent the Diocesan Tribunals’report concerning the three miracles attributed to the intercession of Sr. Alphonsa to a team of doctors for expert opinion. On the basis of the experts panel report the congregation approved the three miracles but with the stipulation that one minor apostolic process should be conducted concerning them. The congregation issued a Decree on 13 July 1980 authorizing the bishop of Palai to conduct this process. Accordingly the bishop constituted a Tribunal on 2 March 1981 with Rev.Dr. Joseph Mattam as the President. The Tribunal examined 27 witnesses including four doctors. The depositions were translated into English and sent to Rome by the end of 1981.


Formerly at least two miracles were required for beatification. But this requirement was relaxed in the 1983 Regulations which reduced the number from two to one. The Sacred, congregation sent the report of one of the three miracles which the Diocesan and apostolic Tribunal had investigated first to a panel of two doctors and then to one of five. Either team sent a report stating that what had happened was beyond the power of medical science to explain. Both the theologians who met on 23 May 1985 and the congress of cardinals which met on 2 July 1985 upheld the miracle as a supernatural event which happened through the intercession Sr. Alphonsa. This matter was intimated to the Pope by cardinal Pallazzini and the Pope authorized the sacred congregation to issue a Decree to this effect. Accordingly the sacred congregation promulgated a Decree in the presence of the Pope on 6 July 1985 recognizing the miraculous healing as one obtained through the intercession of Sr. Alphonsa. With that the beatification process came to its successful completion.


Venerable Sr. Alphonsa and Vinerable Fr. Kuriakose Chavara, whose beatification process had been completed by that time, were beatified by Pope John Paul II at a function held in Kottayam on 8 Feb. 1986.


On 26 Feb, 2002 the canonization Tribunal for the investigation of the miracle which was earlier reported to Rome was constituted with Rev.Dr. Joseph Mattom as the Eparchial Delegate. The Tribunal held forty sessions and examined as many witnesses. The documents were handed over to the pronuncio in New Delhi on, 7Oct.2002. The documents reached Rome on 10 Oct.2002. A resume of this report was submitted later on 23 March, 2006. The medical council confirmed the miracle. On 5 July the same year the Theological council signed the document approving the miracle. On 10 Jan. 2007 the council of Cardinals approved the miracle. On I June that year the Pope confirmed the miracle. On 12 Oct.2008 Blessed Alphonsa was canonized in Rome.