Case for pope's sainthood moving forward

John Paul II's life goes under scrutiny

many behind cause

March 25, 2007|By Christine Spolar | Christine Spolar,Chicago Tribune

ROME -- In life, Pope John Paul II moved crowds like a rock star. Now a cadre of theologians, cardinals and medical doctors from the Vatican will determine if the late pontiff should soar to the level of sainthood.

A third-floor office that overlooks St. Peter's Square, which echoed in April 2005 with funeral prayers for the former Karol Wojtyla, is where the decision will be weighed. By April 2, all documents on the spiritual life and times of the Polish pope will be carted into the rarefied sanctum of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

The congregation's prefect, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, plans for Pope John Paul II's papacy to be scrutinized according to ordinary, if strict, church law. First, as in all sainthood cases, theologians will study his life for virtue, writing volumes much like legal briefs to be parsed by 30 cardinals detailed to the secretive congregation.

Then the process will be repeated, focusing on specific anecdotes of grace that might have flowed from John Paul II and finding hard data, even medical opinions, to assess such claims. The cardinals will advise whether the spirit of John Paul II in sudden, visible and inexplicable ways upended anyone's life.

In short, the pope needs a couple of miracles.

"Among many people ... there is no doubt that he was a real and true saint," said Saraiva Martins, the congregation's administrator for the past decade. "But private emotion has nothing to do with the process. This has to go by church law."

The Roman Catholic search for a saint, by any account, is a long labor of scholarship and faith. Only once before, in the case of Mother Teresa, who died in 1997, was the process for sainthood sped along. In 2003, Pope John Paul II, long an admirer of the nun and Nobel laureate who cared for the poor of Kolkata, India, advanced her case without the normal waiting period, then eight years after death.

The end of John Paul II's reign triggered another historic decision to fast-track. This month, just shy of the two-year anniversary of his death, the first phase known as the investigation of the Diocese of Rome was finished. A ceremony marking the handover to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints of all letters, e-mails and testimonies, collected in Rome and the Polish city of Krakow, will be held next week at St. John Lateran Basilica.

Analysts have said that the former pope already has the inside track on sainthood by virtue of those who will judge him: During his nearly 27-year reign, John Paul II worked closely with current Pope Benedict XVI and appointed most of the cardinals who will research his case.

Still, the Polish church, whose faithful chanted "santo subito" (sainthood now) on the day of the pope's funeral, appears to be angling for a special dispensation for a native son known as a champion of human rights for the one-time Eastern bloc and pivotal in the fall of communism.

Last week, in a carefully timed interview, the pope's former secretary and now archbishop of Krakow told a newspaper in Poland that he believed another rule of sainthood could be broken for this pontiff.

Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz raised the possibility that the first step in the process known as beatification, aimed at reckoning the spiritual character of a prospective saint within a specific or local community, could be bypassed.

Dziwisz, in a report in the daily newspaper Dziennik, said that John Paul II spent much of his priestly life overseeing a global congregation. Because of that, he said he could see the pope's case for sainthood reduced solely to canonization, the last step that must show that the proposed saint is an example of Catholic faith for believers everywhere.

"We don't want to dictate any course of action to the pope but this is, in truth, our desire," he told Dziennik, adding that Wojtyla belonged to "the whole world."

The Polish impatience may be attributed to pure religious enthusiasm and a sense of how to capitalize on a Catholic superstar. The former pope's tomb draws thousands of visitors each week to the Vatican, many of whom drop to their knees, hushed in prayer. Some people leave roses or drawings at the tomb, and many write entreaties for spiritual help. One person last week even dropped off a piece of pizza, carefully wrapped in plastic, for the pontiff.

But a few hard facts about the demands of Catholic sainthood may also explain the Poles' rush for judgment.

Each phase of sainthood requires proof of a miracle. Although advocates have breezily chatted about "hundreds of miracles" attributed to Pope John Paul II, serious observers said that so far only one, in initial reporting, has comes close to Vatican standards of being a case of enduring, sudden and complete redemption.

A nun in France, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, reportedly recovered after she and a congregation of sisters prayed to John Paul II shortly after his death and asked for him to intercede. John Paul II also displayed the symptoms of the disease.

Vatican watchers said that the church wants to be careful with the case for Pope John Paul II. He was an enormously charismatic man but also a religious leader who guided the church through a quarter-century of some distress.

There are critics who called the pontiff too conservative and out-of-touch with some realities, particularly in the Third World and countries in Africa that have suffered from the spread of HIV, which can be sexually transmitted.

Others have said the pope protected the church to a fault and covered up scandals such as priests who sexually preyed on youth, leaving behind a spiritual and legal liability that continues to rock the church.

Christine Spolar writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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