More than one million pilgrims will descend on Rome next month to celebrate the beatification of Pope John Paul II, just six years after his death. But they – and millions of other devotees around the world – know it will still take a miracle for the revered former pontiff to be declared a saint. And the hunt for that miracle starts in earnest on 1 May – from the moment he is declared "blessed" during a mass in St Peter's Square led by his successor, Pope Benedict XVI.
Confirmation of the beatification came in February when Benedict officially recognised a French nun's remarkable recovery in 2005 from Parkinson's disease as the miracle that was needed for the penultimate step on the way to sainthood.
But Monsignor Slawomir Oder, who is leading John Paul II's canonisation cause, is already looking ahead. "Let's not forget that beatification is only a stage, looking ahead to the great day when the Church, after recognising another miracle attributed to John Paul II, will be able to raise him to glory as a saint," he says on a new website.
A book out tomorrow, Vivi dentro di noi (you live inside us), by Polish writer Aleksandra Zapotoczny, lists 120 alleged miracles that have occurred to those praying to John Paul II and suggests that fresh claims won't be long in coming.
In a theological sense, the activity of worshippers has no bearing on whether John Paul II becomes a saint. God will have already decided that. The process of canonisation, by answering two people's prayers with miracles, is simply the proof that he's already in paradise. In the real world, at a time when the Catholic Church has been severely damaged by paedophilia and financial scandals, there's tacit acceptance that celebrating one of the institution's best-loved personalities with a sainthood cannot come soon enough. The popular pressure to make him a saint should prove irresistible.
But experts inside and outside the church acknowledge that the institution faces a delicate balancing act in satisfying the wishes of the faithful while ensuring the canonisation process retains a modicum of credibility. And that credibility suffered mightily under the reign of the Polish pontiff himself, after he changed the rules in a way that saw beatifications and sainthoods become almost two-a-penny. The office of Promoter of the Faith, better known as the Devil's Advocate, who was traditionally employed to argue against a person's beatification or canonisation, was abolished in 1983, and with it an important check on the process.
Today, the Vatican may still call for priests to assume that role in high-profile or controversial candidacies. It can also call expert witnesses to contest beatifications – as it did in getting atheist writer Christopher Hitchens to argue against Mother Theresa's beatification. She was still declared "blessed", in 2003 under new fast-track rules.
Benedict has a reputation for being more rigorous than his predecessor when it comes to dispensing sainthoods. "The number of people made saints has fallen under his reign," says Professor Emma Fattorini, of La Sapienza University, who is the author of a new book, Hitler, Mussolini and the Vatican: Pope Pius XI and the Speech that was Never Made.
But another – bigger – black cloud hovers over John Paul II's canonisation. Much of the clerical paedophilia revelations that emerged in the past 12 months occurred under his watch, even though his successor has taken most of the blame. The victims' association, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, has criticised the "hasty drive to confer sainthood on the pontiff under whose reign most of the widely documented clergy sex crimes and cover-ups took place".
A particular cause for alarm was John Paul II's closeness to the serial child-abuser Marcial Maciel Delgado, the former head of a conservative order, the Legionaries of Christ. "In particular, his closeness and continued support for Mexican cult leader Marcial Maciel has left a very negative impression," Professor Fattorini says. But she doesn't think this will be enough to prevent his sainthood. "He was a great Pope, he was greatly loved and has an important political legacy with his opposition to Communism. There is huge pressure to make him a saint," she says.
Professor Marco Rizzi, of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, adds that by declaring John Paul II "blessed", the church authorities have already signalled their intentions. "In a sense, the distinction between being 'blessed' and being a saint is a subtle one," he says. "The church has already responded to the pressure to celebrate John Paul by fast-tracking him for beatification."
Thus with the pressure off, and with the need for a second miracle that can stand up to extreme scrutiny, the church will be prepared to take its time, he says.
But that's not to say the church isn't doing its best to speed up the process. "It's extremely well organised," Professor Rizzi says. "Around the world, in Brazil, France, everywhere, the faithful are being encouraged to pray to John Paul. Particularly in hospitals where there are sick people."
Examples in Vivi dentro di noi give a taste of the claims that are likely to emerge – impossible conceptions, miracle cures and inexplicable survivals. "There's always a way to find another miracle. It might not happen next month or next year. But sooner or later it will happen," Professor Fattorini says.
* French nun Marie Simon-Pierre, 48, claimed that her Parkinson's symptoms vanished in 2005 after prayers were offered to the recently deceased pontiff. Sister Simon-Pierre said her whole order prayed on her behalf, as she scribbled the Pope's name on a piece of paper and woke up the next day cured. After medical tests, the Vatican accepted this as the miracle needed for John Paul II's beatification.
* A young man, known only as Jarek, describes waking from a coma which was thought to be irreversible. Jarek's priest, Padre Andrea, had set off for Rome with a photo of the road-accident victim. During his audience with John Paul II, the pontiff touched the photo, and Jarek woke from the coma, it is claimed.
* Francesco Pasanisi, a member of John Paul II's protection unit, describes how he was spared from harm while using his body to shield the Pope during an assassination attempt in 1981.