04/24/2014 03:21 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2014

A Former Swiss Guard Reflects on Canonizations and Saints

John Paul II beatified and canonized over 1500 people -- more than all other popes before him combined. I remember Pope John Paul pointing out that the reason for his frequent beatification and canonizations was simple: to bring to our attention that being a saint is not something of yesterday, something rare and unachievable. Instead, he wanted the masses to understand that sainthood is common and achievable in the past, the present and the future. Everyone who wants to get to heaven must be a saint, so we all have to work toward and pray for it.

As a young man serving in the Swiss Guard, I remember dreading the long events connected to beatifications and canonizations. A canonization Mass would easily run two and a half hours, which meant that we were on duty in St. Peter's Square for over 5 hours to cover the before and after -- often work we'd be asked to do on our days off.

These events were complex affairs: the actual Mass would not be the only event, either. Each new saint and blessed brought with him or her a lot of extra work for the Swiss Guards. My resentment at the time was selfish: more saints meant less free time for me. But without fail, some of the people who attended and witnessed to the saint or blessed always left a deep impression on me. They inspired me, no matter how much I didn't want to be there.

The solemn Mass on St. Peter's Square is the culmination of a very long process that examines the life and work of a person to determine if they are worthy to serve as a role model for Catholics. It's a bit like being inducted into the Catholic hall of fame, except that it's not done to honor the individual inducted -- they will have died many years ago. Instead, it's meant for the benefit of the living looking for powerful role models as they themselves strive to lead lives worthy of sainthood.

To understand beatification and sainthood, it's useful to consider that there are three levels to the Catholic Hall of Fame. The process begins with the desire of a local Church to examine a person's life. A person is of course not chosen arbitrarily, but based on many people's suggestions and requests. Once this local process begins, we call them a Servant of God. Once the local examination of the person's life is finished and there is a desire to further the cause, a request is made of the Vatican to take over the investigation.

The object of this process is to determine if the person exhibited heroic virtue during their life. It is during this process that there used to be what was called "the devil's advocate" -- a person whose job it was to argue that a person was not living extraordinary virtue. The Church stopped using a devil's advocate during John Paul's papacy, but the term has made it into most languages colloquial use for good. The findings then are presented to the pope and if he agrees, the person is forthwith called "venerable" -- literally "worthy of a great deal of respect." The idea here is to declare them a worthy role models, to invigorate the faithful, to celebrate the new hero in heaven and show that it can be done. If he can do it, I can do it, the process suggests -- holiness is achievable, I just have to find my path to it!

Pope John XXII pointed out that each one of us has a distinct path to holiness and makes a different kind of saint. He was very devout to the Jesuit Saint Aolysisus Gonzaga, but in his journal, he wrote: "If St. Aloysius had been as I am, he would have become holy in a different way."

To go beyond venerable status, you need a miracle. This is often misunderstood, as it's not that the deceased venerable actually performs a miracle. The logic the Church uses is this: Being in heaven is being with God. If someone dies and goes to heaven, he or she is with God. Now -- you know how Mary asked Jesus to do something at the wedding feast of Canaa that he wasn't planning to do? I bet you the situation was that the bride's father, upon realizing that they had no wine, went into panic and sought a solution. He sought help... but from whom? Then he found out that someone brought this holy rabbi along and decided to ask him. Only, he did not think he could just walk up to the guy and ask him for help... so he asked his mother to help. What Mary did was what the Church calls "intercede" for the bride's father. She asked Jesus to help someone other than herself. And Jesus turned water into wine, even though he wasn't planning on it.

This is what Catholics believe anyone in heaven can do: they can ask God to help someone, to intercede on someone's behalf and God sometimes helps that person in the form of a miracle.

If someone asks a venerable to please intercede for them, and a miracle results from it, the Church takes this as a guarantee that the person is in heaven. After all, how could you ask God for this unless you're right there in heaven with Him? This request for intercession is often misunderstood by non-Catholics as "praying to" someone as if they were God, which they of course are not.

Usually the miracles considered are of a medical nature and the Vatican has them examined by a team of doctors, scientists and theologians who determine whether there is any natural explanation for the alleged miracle and whether the intercession was indeed through the venerable in question.

After one such miracle, the case is presented to the pope to beatify the venerable and thus declare her or him "blessed." After a second verified miracle, the pope determines if the blessed is canonized a saint. This last step is really the Church saying nothing else then that "this person is truly in heaven."

What many of us overlook is that being a saint is actually a requirement to get into heaven - so the new saint is not really "special" in that sense in heaven. It's just that the Church has a process to say about some people "they've made it" -- hence the hall of fame. Also, there is no opposite hall of fame. Also, there's no official hall of shame. The Catholic Church has never declared any deceased person to be in hell. That's not to say that hell doesn't exist -- just that the Church says that we don't know who's in it.

But back to the canonization. Since the process of scrutiny is so rigorous and extensive, many people get involved. The canonization, which started based on popular demand in the first place, reinvigorates a lot of the communities and groups of people who had ties to the new saint. Their home town, school, place of work or ministry, their order, family and work, the movements or works that they founded or inspired, people who were influenced by their writings or other interactions -- they all feel a connection to this advocate in heaven and come to be there for the great moment.

Usually the cardinal who oversees the process presents himself to the Pope before the Mass and publicly recites the stages of the person's life, what they did, where they lived. At every mention of a particular groups' connection they of course interrupt the reading with loud cheers, which renders this process rather lengthy. At the end, the Cardinal puts his recommendation to the pope and asks him for his consent. When the consent is given, a large canvas portrait of the new saint is revealed on the façade of St. Peter's Basilica. This is usually the point at which the crowd takes control of the event for a while.

By that time, I would have been standing on the square for a few hours already and the end was not in sight. Most often canonizations are bunched together, so this process is repeated a few times over. I found during my time as a Swiss Guard that the best way to deal with such lengthy events while having to stand still was to pay attention and listen carefully. I'd try to use my imagination as the life of the saint was described, using the readings as a way to escape, at least in thought, the constraints of having to stand immovably for hours at a time.

Once the Mass is over, there are other events surrounding canonizations and beatifications. They range from prayer meetings, vigils and talks held all around Rome in honor of the new role model. And then before everyone goes home again, there's an audience with the Pope to celebrate once more.

Now, 28 years later, I'm in Rome myself as one of the pilgrims who knew the new saint and whose life he impacted. John Paul II impacted my young life in profound ways, laying the groundwork for my becoming a husband, father, businessman, writer, teacher and most importantly a practicing Catholic. It was his example that inspired me, his words that gave me hope, his ideas that provided direction to my life. I would not want to miss this event -- having someone you know be declared a saint!

And so I find myself among the very crowd I used to dread. Maybe I'll even inspire someone through my witness.