Whatever happened to ... canonising John Paul II?

By Iain Hollingshead (THE GUARDIAN, 01/04/06):

Pope John Paul II's death on April 2 2005 - a year ago tomorrow - triggered an unprecedented clamour for his canonisation as huge crowds converged on Rome to pay tribute. Santo Subito, went the cry in St Peter's Square: "Make him a saint now."Even before the new pope was elected, cardinals signed a petition to put John Paul II on the fast track for sainthood, bypassing the usual five-year interval intended to allow emotions to subside. Just as John Paul II had sped up the process to beatify Mother Teresa in 2003, his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, announced plans to waive the traditional waiting period within a month of his installation.

It represented an unintentional example of "doing unto others as you would have them do to you". John Paul II created 482 saints (more than in the previous 500 years) and beatified 1,340 people (more than all his predecessors combined), dramatically modernising a process that used to take decades, if not centuries.

The Vatican's concept of "fast track", however, is rather more exhaustive than it sounds. A person has to be beatified (whereupon they are given the title "Blessed") before they can be canonised (made a saint). Beatification requires proof of one miracle; canonisation a second. This is accompanied by a thorough investigation of every aspect of the candidate's life. A final decision is taken by the Congregation of the Causes of Saints in Rome and the Pope. Speculation that John Paul II might be beatified in time for Pope Benedict's visit to Poland next month now seems highly unlikely.

Last May, the Catholic church invited people to submit evidence "in favour or against" the late pope's suitability to be a saint. Thousands of emails poured into the inbox of Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the official in charge of promoting John Paul's cause. Support has also come from agnostics, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus.

A more heated debate focuses on the posthumous miracles necessary for beatification. Oder cites "dozens" reported in the last year. Of these, three are particularly "promising". There is also the "very impressive" case of a French nun who credits the former pope with her recovery from Parkinson's disease. There has even been speculation that John Paul II could be declared a martyr.

But not everyone in the Catholic church is supportive. Last December, 11 theologians produced a long list of allegations, including John Paul's failure to check "the devastating plague of abuse by clerics of minors" and to end "murky" financial dealings with the Vatican bank. A former Catholic priest in Ireland has written, "We don't want sainthood to become like the House of Lords in London - an end-of-life cushy jobs for the boys."

Oder, however, maintains that messages opposing John Paul's sainthood amount to fewer than 1%. Giuseppe D'Alonzo, promoter of justice for the diocese of Rome, will perform the duties of the now defunct post of Devil's Advocate - the official whose job it is to question all evidence put forward in favour of sainthood.

Others remain serenely confident that canonisation is a question of when, not if. The Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport is marking the first anniversary of the pope's death with a special DVD series: John Paul II: The Man Who Changed the World, a Pope on the Road to Sainthood.