The Pope's Push for Sainthood

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Few doubt that Pope Benedict XVI made a pilgrimage Saturday to the birthplace of a saint. The only real question is when that sainthood will be made official. The date of birth, of course, we already know to be May 18, 1920, when Karol Wojtyla was born in a humble two-story home in the town of Wadowice, in the rolling countryside of southern Poland. He died 85 years later in Rome as the most widely beloved — and arguably most influential — pope of the past millennium. But exactly when the Catholic Church will officially recognize Pope John Paul II as a saint is a question only the Lord (and Vatican bureaucrats) can answer.

Benedict disappointed those hoping that this four-day trip to Poland would bring an automatic proclamation of beatification, the final step before starting the canonization process toward sainthood. Still, he offered some hope on Saturday that John Paul could rise to saint status faster than any figure in modern church history. In one of the rare moments when he strayed from his prepared text, Benedict told a Polish crowd he hoped that "providence in the near future will offer us the chance to enjoy the beatification and canonization of John Paul II."

But those praying and chanting for "Santo Subito!" (Saint Right Away!) must be forewarned that even the most obvious Vatican edicts take time. Benedict, a close aide and good friend to the departed pontiff, appears to be leaving his fate in the hands of the crew of Vatican officials and Catholic volunteers doing the paper work and pounding of the pavement to verify the cause. Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said Saturday that Benedict's words were simply an expression of "his hope" and not a call to speed things up. Normal procedures must be followed for a decision that will stick for centuries, Navarro told reporters. "It's a question of responsibility before history."

Still, Benedict has already allowed for a major shortcut to "St. John Paul," having waved the normal five-year waiting period after death for the opening of the beatification process. John Paul had done the same with Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was beatified quicker than anyone before, just six years after her 1997 death. The quickest to get all the way to sainthood under current procedures was Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, who died in 1975, and was canonized in 2002.

John Paul may very well get the nod even faster, especially if all the prayers have a say. On Friday evening, the new pope encouraged young people in Krakow to continue their ritual of praying for John Paul's sainthood the second day of every month, at the hour of his death, saying that the ritual "supports those working on his Cause." Benedict told the crowd Saturday in the central square of Wadowice that he will be praying that John Paul's sainthood comes "soon." That got big cheers from the hometown crowd, chants of "We Thank You! We Thank You!" and a smile from the Polish pope's former longtime personal secretary, Stanislaw Dziwisz, who has since taken over his boss' old job as Archbishop of Krakow.

Sending a mere mortal down the road toward eternal sainthood of the church requires two essential elements: that the candidate lived a saintly life of "heroic virtue," and that at least one bonafide miracle can be linked to him after his death. That would lead to beatification, which if followed by another confirmed miracle, would lead to canonization. Father Peter Gumpel, an official with the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, believes this pope wants to let the normal process run its course. Asked when, Gumpel said he is not a fortune teller, but that it is probably "a question of years, not weeks or months." Gumpel said his his fellow German "is a scholar, so he wants to do things in a precise way."

Following the set canonical process allows an official and thorough accounting of John Paul's "entire life...all his deeds." There are a multitude of cases of supposed miracles attributed to the late pope, but officials are zeroing in on the healing of a French nun suffering from Parkinson's disease, the same progressive nervous system ailment that had stricken John Paul. Doctors will have to confirm that there is no medical explanation for the nun's recovery. "The miracle is the confirmation," explained Father Gumpel. "In all human undertakings there can be mistakes, so we need divine confirmation."

A somewhat more human process may eventually grant John Paul another notable title: The Great. He was already endowed with the title "Magnus" by Rome's La Sapienza University in 2003, while top Vatican Cardinals and even Benedict himself have repeatedly referred to him as "Il Grande" Pope John Paul II. There is no official Vatican procedure for bestowing the title, explained Andrea Tornielli, the Vatican correspondent for Il Giornale daily. "It's something that becomes invested over time," he said. So for the most impassioned followers of the Polish pontiff, there is nothing holding you back from calling him John Paul the Great. If it sticks, he will be only the fourth Pope ever to receive the title, and the first since St. Nicholas the Great in the Ninth Century.