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Charting a Path to Sainthood
Team in Rome Examines 'Cause' of John Paul II

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.

Though John Paul II is the most high-profile candidate for sainthood in modern times, church officials say they are treating his case with the seriousness and skepticism befitting a process that birthed the term "devil's advocate" -- a former church post whose holder was tasked with making sure that the full facts against a sainthood came to light.

"No one has the right to be canonized, not even Pope John Paul," Monsignor Robert Sarno, a Brooklyn-born priest who works for the Congregation, said during a recent interview at his Rome apartment.

That means putting aside reported miracles that can never be proved, and stringent physiological and psychological testing for cases that look possibly real.

Two levels of the Congregation will review Oder's documents and make recommendations to Benedict, who has the final say on beatification. If that takes place, proceedings would begin toward canonization, or sainthood, which requires verification of a second miracle taking place after beatification.

John Paul, who canonized more people than any pope in history -- 482 -- has entered the system just as it is slowing. In February, the Vatican issued a document calling for the consideration process to be followed more stringently, apparently responding to worries that perhaps John Paul's numbers were too high.

Some critics point to cases like that of Padre Pio, whom John Paul canonized in 2002 even though previous popes and Vatican doctors had called the Italian monk and his stigmata, or wounds of the cross, a fraud. Padre Pio is Italy's most popular saint; his body is on display this year, and hundreds of thousands of people have made reservations to see it.

In his three years as pope, Benedict has canonized just 14. Although he has said he favors John Paul being named a saint, he has not exercised his right to make it happen immediately.

Many popes are never recognized as saints or blesseds. When Pope Pius X was canonized in 1954, he was the first in centuries. While the Vatican is moving toward beatification for Pope Pius XII, his case has been dogged by some scholars who accuse him of not doing enough to help Jews during the Holocaust.

Among the people opposing John Paul's sainthood are José Maria Castillo, a Jesuit from Spain, and Italian theologian Giovanni Franzoni.

About 400 people are currently in the system for beatification or canonization along with the late pontiff, including Mother Teresa. Most are not well known, such as an Italian couple beatified through the Rome Diocese who "were very good-hearted, very faithful," and had at least two children who went into the clergy, said Monsignor Marco Fibbi, who handles communications for Oder and the diocese.

Church officials say they want the process to be strict -- even for John Paul -- because they say it is important for modern-day Catholics to see that God works in tangible ways. It's especially important, they say, to examine the reported healings with objectivity.

"If anyone is scientific in this process, it's the church," said Christopher Gaffrey, an American Franciscan friar helping the John Paul office with translation. "Because if they're going to hold this up as a miracle, they're not going to hold up something that could be easily criticized."

To church officials, however, skepticism has a limit. "The church starts with the premise that God exists and that He can and does get involved in our lives," Sarno said. "We don't even take into consideration that that isn't possible."

And will it be difficult to impartially judge the soul and intercessory power of John Paul, particularly in an office surrounded with poster-size photos of him, and boxes upon boxes of letters praising him?

"Faithful people understand," said Fibbi, his hands crossed and a slight smile on his lips, "that the church has 2,000 years of experience at this. It knows what it is doing."

Special correspondent Sarah Delaney contributed to this report.

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