Pope John Paul II's "saint factory", responsible for the creation of more saints during his pontificate than in the previous 17 papal reigns put together, may be grinding to a halt.
Archbishop Michele di Ruberto, secretary of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the Vatican office that processes claims to sainthood, told La Stampa newspaper that Pope Benedict wants the congregation to pay "maximum attention" in its evaluation of documents supporting a candidate's claim, with "scrupulous observation" of ecclesiastical norms. The Pope himself reads every file page by page, according to the archbishop, and until he is personally satisfied with the miracles accredited to a candidate, no progress is possible.
The slowing of the process may even affect the prospects of the two most promising candidates for sainthood currently under examination, Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II himself. Mother Teresa, a close friend of the late pope and founder of the Missionaries of Charity order in Calcutta, was beatified in record time in 2003, six years after her death instead of the usual minimum of 10 years. But the final step to sainthood could take much longer. "The examples [of miracles] have already been sent to the Pope," said the archbishop, "but if the miracles are not approved, canonisation cannot proceed. And in the cause of canonisation, the miracles must be of a certain consistency."
In his eulogy at the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, remarked: "We can be sure that our beloved pope is standing today at the window of the Father's house." Vatican expert Vittorio Messori said at the time, "If he is in paradise, he is a saint", and many others felt that Cardinal Ratzinger had informally sainted the late pope.
But John Paul's progress, which has enjoyed eloquent support from many of the Church's most powerful people, may now follow a more stately pace. "For John Paul II there is a presumed miracle," said the archbishop, "but first his heroic virtues must be approved. And Benedict XVI has not yet delivered his judgement on the virtues of Wojtyla (John Paul's original surname), and his indication is to do things with maximum seriousness, taking all the time necessary."
John Paul II regarded the creation of saints as a way to restore the intensity of devotion which he felt the contemporary church had lost. He speeded up the process of sainthood – making a record 482 saints – by giving the task to a dedicated Vatican bureau, and also by abolishing the "devil's advocate" whose task was to find reasons a candidate might be rejected.
Figures of immense controversy were sainted during John Paul's long reign, notably Padre Pio, the Capuchin friar famous for bearing stigmata, flying through the air and being in two places at once – as well as for being a fraud and a lecher. Equally controversial was the canonisation in 2002 of Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, known as the "Holy Mafia".
And yesterday, the Pope set Escriva's Opus Dei deputy, Alvaro del Portillo, on the road to beatification – it just might take a while.