There are rarefied jobs in nearly every walk of life, and then there is the work of Dr. Andrea Ambrosi.

Born and raised in Rome, he is a postulator for extraordinary Catholic people who are in line for elevation to special status by the Church, people such as Mother Theodore Guerin, who founded the Sisters of Providence motherhouse and novitiate here in 1840 and the following year the academy that would become St. Mary-of-the-Woods College.

In the whole world, perhaps 30 people do what Ambrosi does: make detailed, thorough, reverential arguments for the promotion of people — usually long after their deaths — to “venerable” or “blessed” status or, even higher, to sainthood.

The Sisters of Providence have scheduled a “major news conference” this morning at the motherhouse on the status of Mother Theodore’s cause for sainthood.

If any of the other postulators have a better track record, it is hard to imagine. Since he began advocating in the early 1980s, Ambrosi estimates he has handled more than 300 cases. Asked how many have culminated in a person being proclaimed “venerable,” “blessed” or “saint,” he seemed surprised.

“We’ve had success in all of them,” he said last week, during a visit to St.-Mary-of-the-Woods.

The “we” Ambrosi referred to is his staff of four in Rome as well as — when occasion demands — translator Heather Milligan, a Missouri native who married an Italian and now lives and works in Rome. She accompanied Ambrosi on his most recent trip to the United States.

The postulator came to North America on more than Mother Theodore business. Among the 30 or so people for whom he currently advocates, 10 lived their holy, heroic lives in this country. The rest are Europeans, primarily from Germany, he said.

One of Ambrosi’s most recent successful causes was that of Cardinal Clemens August von Galen, who was beatified in October and appears well on his way to canonization. Nicknamed “the Lion of Muenster,” von Galen was openly critical of Hitler and the Nazis during their reign; his homilies were secretly copied and circulated throughout Germany to provide hope and support to the oppressed.

Asked if Pope Benedict XVI’s German heritage might provide an extra edge for candidates from that country, Ambrosi chuckled but shook his head.

“Oh, no,” he said. “He is not that kind of guy.”

Before 1983, when Pope John Paul II changed the rules, an official postulator had to be a priest with three different academic degrees. Now lay people with one degree and specific education in the field can do the work. But like his father before him, Ambrosi was working in the genre long before John Paul’s reforms, as a lay attorney. He assisted on his first cause in 1971.

One of Ambrosi’s most important functions in the early years was to play Devil’s Advocate, and not just as a generic figure of speech. As part of the ancient, protracted and labyrinthine Church process of beatification and canonization, there is always an official “accuser” whose job is to try rip a case to shreds.

“It was incredible training,” said Ambrosi. “Because to be a good defender, you have to know how to be a good accuser.”

He spent three years playing Devil’s Advocate and gaining invaluable experience with the General Promoter of the Faith, a Vatican position within the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. By the time John Paul II instituted his sweeping procedural changes, Ambrosi was a seasoned pro.

As a secular analogy, a postulator is hired by a congregation such as the Sisters of Providence to perform the work, not only of an attorney, but also an investigator. Canon Law (the legal code of the Catholic Church) says a postulator’s job is to “examine, collect and research historical and theological material about the individual for whom the honors of the altar are sought and to present that case to the bishop of the diocese and Holy See.”

If that sounds straightforward and expedient, it isn’t. For beatification, alone, there are 20, multifaceted steps to be executed. Each step can take years or decades and result in voluminous documents, thousands of pages in length.

Ambrosi said that part of his job is to keep the people promoting a cause from getting discouraged because the process “sometimes stalls” and can take such a long time.

Examining, collecting and researching information is where the detective work comes in.

Every aspect of the life of a person being considered for veneration, beatification or canonization must be ferreted out and painstakingly scrutinized. While Pope John Paul II may have made it easier to get candidates into and through the pipeline for elevation — he proclaimed 482 saints, 180 more than the combined total of all his predecessors since 1594 — the institutional church wants no surprises or mistakes.

In the case of Mother Theodore, Ambrosi had her copious writings as one rich vein to mine for clues to her history. Other causes, especially those from centuries ago, provide little tangible record.

All this microscopic investigation occurs before a postulator begins to look into the really difficult material, the aspects of a candidate’s life that distinguish her or him from legions of exemplary Catholics and which might qualify the candidate for beatification or sainthood: heroic deeds and miracles.

Ambrosi’s case for Mother Theodore’s second miracle, essential for sainthood, was approved last autumn by the Vatican’s panel of medical doctors and theologians. A special congregation of cardinals was to vote this week on whether they will recommend Mother Theodore’s cause for sainthood to the pope.

Ambrosi said he is “very optimistic” about the outcome.

Asked if he had enjoyed working with the Sisters of Providence, he answered “molto,” which is Italian for “a lot.” In four trips to the United States for Mother Theodore’s cause, the postulator said, he had learned a great deal about the women who carry on her legacy.

“The Sisters are really exquisite people,” he said.

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or

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