Pope Francis has recognized a new pathway to sainthood.
In an apostolic letter Tuesday, the pontiff issued a decree stating that consideration for sainthood could apply to people who had lived a devout Catholic life and voluntarily acted for the good of others at the expense of their own life.
The Roman Catholic Church previously recognized three pathways to becoming a saint: martyrdom, living an uncommonly virtuous life as a Christian and having a longstanding reputation as a saintly person.
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” Francis opened his letter, quoting from John 15:13.
“Those Christians are worthy of special consideration and honor who, following in the footsteps and teaching of Jesus, have offered their life voluntarily and freely for others and have persevered in this to death,” the pope continued, according to a translation of the letter, published in Italian and Latin, by America Magazine.
The sainthood process, called canonization, entails three steps and must begin at least five years after a person’s death, though the pope can waive the time limit. The first step is the initiation of a formal inquiry, followed by beatification, a declaration by the pope that the candidate is “blessed.” The final step is canonization, when someone is formally declared a saint.
According to Vatican Radio, the new category has five criteria:
Candidates must have freely and voluntarily offered their lives in the face of “a certain and soon-to-come death.”
There must be a “close relation” between the candidate’s offering their life and his or her “premature death.”
The person must have lived closely in alignment with “Christian virtues” before and up until their death.
They must have a “reputation for holiness,” especially after their death.
The candidate must have a miracle attributed to their intercession.
One example of the type of candidate for this new category would be Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest at Auschwitz who offered to take the place of a fellow prisoner who was going to be starved to death as part of a collective punishment over an escape, according to Reuters. Kolbe was declared a saint in 1982, nearly 30 years after his name was submitted.
Archbishop Marcello Bartolucci, secretary of the Vatican Congregation for Saints’ Causes, said the new category aims “to promote heroic Christian testimony, up to now without a specific process, precisely because it did not completely fit within the case of martyrdom or heroic virtues,” according to Catholic News Service.