Sainthood for Pope John Paul II: the fast track or the slow road?

Perspective Editor

In his more than 26 years as pope, John Paul II made saints out of 484 men and women, more than all his predecessors combined. Along the way, he created 1,338 blesseds - individuals who were deemed responsible for at least one miracle.

Now, Pope Benedict XVI says he has decided to put his predecessor on the fast track toward becoming a saint himself, bypassing church rules that would have required a five-year wait before beginning the complicated process that leads to a formal declaration of sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict's decision means he could be beatified and so declared a "blessed of the church" within a few years if a miracle can be attributed to his intercession. Documentation of a second miracle would make him a saint.

Pope Benedict's action was foreshadowed at the funeral of the popular Pope John Paul on April 8 when crowds shouted "Santo Subito" (Make him a saint now!).

But some question the accelerated consideration of Pope John Paul, just as others have fretted about the flood of saints he created.

"Those who want John Paul II placed on a fast track to canonization are interested in solidifying his conservative agenda as pope," the Rev. Richard McBrien, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame, told a reporter last week. "There is good reason why the church requires that no process be initiated until five years after death."

But advocates of early consideration note that Pope John Paul had set a precedent in 1999 when he let Mother Teresa's sainthood cause start only two years after her death. She was beatified in 2003.

And Pope John Paul answered critics of his fast-growing legion of saints by saying their recognition reflected the rapid recent growth of the church.

"In recent years, the number of canonizations and beatifications has increased," he said in 2003. "These show the vitality of the local churches, which are much more numerous today than in the first centuries and in the first millennium."

Indeed, Pope John Paul seemed to delight in spotlighting diversity by making saints around the world - rich and poor, men and women, from almost every country.

Truth be told, Catholics believe everyone in heaven is a saint. What the pope does is pick a sampling who have proved their virtue by working miracles from above.

There are about 10,000 named saints, including about 6,500 approved for devotions on the church's feast day calendar.

The involvement of the Vatican in the naming of a saint is a fairly recent development. In the early days of the church, people would light candles and say prayers to individuals known to be saintly through early church writings or by word of mouth.

Pope John Paul streamlined the process of making saints in 1982 when he declared that martyrs who died for their faith could be automatically beatified.

He ran up his total by making saints of 103 Korean martyrs in 1984, 117 Vietnamese martyrs in 1988 and 120 Chinese martyrs in 2000. His message: Lots of saints aren't white or European.

There is a good chance that Pope John Paul will become formally recognized as a saint within a couple of decades.

Others have not been so lucky.

Pope John XXIII, who convened the historic Second Vatican Council reforms of the 1960s and is still widely beloved, remains a rank below sainthood decades after consideration of his case began.

Sun staff writer Janice D'Arcy and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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