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VATICAN LETTER (CORRECTED) May-3-2011 (740 words) With photos. Backgrounder. xxxi

Heavenly hosts: Popes aren't automatically saints

Pope John Paul II's coat of arms is seen on a stole in a special exhibit on the life and ministry of the Polish pope in the Carlo Magno Hall at the Vatican April 28. (CNS/Paul Haring)

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Considering the fact that they are elected to lead people in prayer, mission and good works, surprisingly few popes have been beatified or canonized, especially in the last 500 years.

From St. Peter to Pope Benedict XVI, there have been 265 popes; 78 of them are saints, and Pope John Paul II's beatification brought to 11 the number of popes known as blessed.

With all those holy popes -- including the first 35 bishops of Rome -- it would seem that the beatification of Pope John Paul could not set any records or be a first of any kind.

Yet his was the quickest beatification since 1588 when the modern sainthood process, regulated by the Vatican, began. Many of the "blessed" popes were beatified on significant anniversaries of their death like Blessed Victor III, who died in 1087 and was beatified in 1887, or Blessed Urban V, who died in 1370 and was beatified in 1870.

Pope John Paul received the recognition six years and 29 days after his death. His process was shorter than the beatification process for Mother Teresa of Kolkata by about two weeks.

Both causes benefited from a papal exemption from the Vatican rule that five years must pass between a person's death and the opening of his or her sainthood cause.

Pope John Paul set the precedence by waiving the five-year waiting period for Blessed Teresa's cause; Pope Benedict set aside the waiting period for Pope John Paul's cause.

In newspapers, on television and on blogs leading up to the May 1 ceremony, the short time lapse between Pope John Paul's death and his beatification became a topic of debate. The "pro" side generally argued that the late pope's holiness was so clear to so many people that the Vatican had to respond to the "sensus fidelium," the sense of the faithful. The "con" side tended to argue that an acclamation of holiness needs to stand the test of time and six years just isn't enough.

In the causes of both Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul, the Vatican said the waiting period was the only part of the normal process that was skipped. Eyewitnesses -- including those with doubts -- were interviewed, writings were studied, a massive biography was prepared and the Vatican looked for miracles to confirm that both were in heaven and able to intervene on behalf of the faithful.

Interestingly enough, though, both causes benefitted from some streamlining of the sainthood process ordered by Pope John Paul in 1983. Instead of two miracles for beatification and two more for canonization, he reduced the number of miracles needed to one for each step.

The May 1 beatification also marked the first time in almost 1,000 years that a pope beatified his immediate predecessor, according to Giovanni Maria Vian, a church historian and the editor of the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.

Pope Leo IX, who died in 1054, and Pope Gregory VII, who died in 1085, were recognized as saints immediately upon their deaths, he said. Unlike the entries for later saintly popes in the Vatican's yearbook, the "Annuario Pontificio," the listings for those two popes do not contain specific canonization dates. However, some sources say Pope Leo wasn't formally canonized until 1082 and Pope Gregory wasn't confirmed a saint until 1728.

In what passes for quick at the Vatican, St. Celestine V was canonized only 19 years after he died, but two popes had served between his death and his recognition as a saint by Pope Clement V in 1313, Vian wrote.

The earliest popes were martyred for their faith, which the Catholic Church takes as a clear sign of holiness.

But once the persecution of the church ended and the papacy gradually gained political influence and, then, actual temporal power, the clusters of pope's names with the title "Saint" before them gets thinner and thinner.

And, in fact, St. Pius X is the only pope who served after the modern saint-making process began in the late 1500s to have been declared a saint. He died in 1914, was beatified in 1951 and canonized in 1954.

In 2000, Pope John Paul beatified Popes Pius IX (who died in 1878) and John XXIII (who died in 1963). The sainthood causes for Blessed John's two successors, Popes Paul VI and John Paul I, is continuing, as is the cause for Pope Pius XII, who died in 1958.


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