Charting a Path to Sainthood

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 2, 2008

ROME -- Evidence overflows from hundreds of boxes stacked to the ceiling in room after room at the Catholic Diocese of Rome -- photographs, drawings, letters and other items that church officials are scouring for the answer to a question: Is Pope John Paul II a saint?

The task here at the Office of the Postulator of the Cause for Beatification and Canonization is to judge souls, a complex job even when the soul in question doesn't belong to a spiritual superhero such as John Paul, who died in 2005 as one of the most popular pontiffs in history.

Located down a towering marble hallway, through a locked glass door, the office is tasked with determining whether John Paul meets the Roman Catholic Church's two broad standards of sainthood: His life deserves to be imitated, and he has demonstrated a postmortem power to help people who pray to him, proving he is in heaven with God.

So far, investigators are coming down in his favor. Their leader told reporters recently that beatification, or elevation to the status of "blessed," often an intermediate step toward sainthood, could take place next spring.

The office has received a handful of arguments against sainthood for John Paul, whom church reformers, particularly in Europe and Latin America, have long lambasted. Letters circulating point to the clergy sex abuse scandal, the treatment of women in the church and the repression of dissident theologians.

But what is found here overwhelmingly supports the late pope's "cause," often in the most affectionate terms -- a stuffed animal from a couple who credit him with an end to their infertility, a wedding dress from someone who had longed for a partner. Countless letters include those from a prostitute who got her faith back and a singer who was able to forgive her daughter's killer. There are also historians' studies of his long papacy, and John Paul's own writings, including verse that refers humbly to his "fallible thoughts."

Blesseds and saints aren't metaphors in Catholic doctrine. They are held up as real examples of people who successfully imitated Jesus in their lives (or deaths, in the case of martyrs), and are well known among Catholics for their holiness.

From the start, this has not been a typical investigation. On the day of John Paul's funeral in 2005, Catholics in St. Peter's Square shouted out "Santo subito!" -- "Sainthood now!" In the face of strong public enthusiasm, his successor, Benedict XVI, waived the usual five-year wait before formal considerations could begin. Since then, the advocacy has only stepped up to get John Paul quickly through a process that can take centuries.

Taking part in the investigation is a small army of consultants, archivists, translators of John Paul's writings, and oncologists and psychologists who examine the medical evidence for reported miracles.

There are also journalists who put out a monthly magazine -- Totus Tuus, or Totally Yours -- devoted completely to the status of John Paul's case. Translated into seven languages, the publication has 8,000 subscribers. "We can't even count the documents we get; there are too many," Aleksandra Zapotoczny, who writes for the magazine and translates letters and testimonies from Polish speakers, said with a grin.

The lead investigator, Monsignor Slawomir Oder of Poland, announced earlier this year that a 2,000-page report about John Paul's life and virtues had been completed by officials at the Rome Diocese (the first phase of such a study is handled by the diocese where the potential saint died) and sent to the Vatican's 34-member Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

The report makes a case for John Paul to be beatified. This requires proof of one miracle (usually of the medical kind) after the candidate's death. Church officials say privately that Oder has attributed the 2005 healing of a French nun who had Parkinson's disease to prayers she addressed to John Paul's soul.

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