Benedict XVI paves way for John Paul to be made a saint

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Pope Benedict XVI has announced that his predecessor, John Paul II, who died on 2 April, could become a saint in unusually quick time.

Pope Benedict XVI has announced that his predecessor, John Paul II, who died on 2 April, could become a saint in unusually quick time.

At the basilica of St John Lateran yesterday he told a gathering of priests based in Rome that the rule of waiting five years after a potential saint's death before the initial process of beatification can start was to be waived in the case of Karol Wojtyla, the first pope from Poland. The five-year rule had been introduced by John Paul himself in 1983, to check a bandwagon backing the former Hollywood actor Grace Kelly for beatification.

The campaign to declare John Paul a saint was gathering momentum even before he was interred. Prayers addressing him as "Santo Giovanni Paolo" were placed on a makeshift shrine around a lamppost in St Peter's Square in the days after his death, and midway through his funeral a forest of banners shot into the air, demanding "santo subito!" [make him a saint right now!]

Yesterday's announcement showed that those demands did not fall on deaf ears. But John Paul will not be made a saint by acclamation, as happened in the early days of the church. The development means merely that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, a Vatican bureau led by Portugal's Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, will begin examining the case for beatifying John Paul immediately. Although several miracles have already been reported, the Congregation will need to agree on at least one and investigate it.

Pope Benedict's announcement came on the 24th anniversary of the attempted assassination of John Paul in St Peter's Square, which also happens to be the saint's day of the Madonna of Fatima, whose cult was close to the late pontiff's heart.

The Pope spoke in Latin, but then said teasingly: "I don't need to translate it into Italian as you all understood." The Roman clerics gave him a standing ovation.

Although the announcement was not trailed, it was "not a surprise at all," according to one Vatican insider. The Pope had given an audience on 28 April to Camillo Ruini, the cardinal vicar of Rome, the source said, and had made his decision subsequently.

The precedent for Benedict's announcement was John Paul's decision to accelerate the process for making Mother Teresa a saint. The Albanian-born missionary nun died in 1997, and was beatified - allowing her to be called Blessed - on 19 October 2003.

John Paul became the most prolific saint-maker for many centuries, canonising more than 480 and beatifying 1,300. When he jetted round the world, as he did for many years, it was said that he liked to have his passport in one pocket and a new saint in the other.

Before becoming Pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said several times that he was not in favour of declaring an excessive number of saints. But, in the case of John Paul, he was never likely to say no. "There was a recognition in the Catholic church and the wider Christian church that this was an exceptional man, a man of God," said the Vatican source. "There was wide-spread recognition that he was a great soul."