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Church officials resist pressure for immediate action

Analysts say time is needed for reflection

VATICAN CITY -- The movement began slowly. Shortly after the pope's death, tearful worshipers began constructing impromptu shrines, decorated with notes, photographs, mementos, and tributes. Then the title, John Paul the Great, started appearing on hats and in descriptions of the pontiff.

At the solemn funeral yesterday in St. Peter's Square, the sentiment grew into an insistent demand from worshipers: ''Santo Subito," Italian for ''saint immediately," popped up on banners throughout the crowd.

The rules of the Catholic Church say that the Vatican cannot even begin the process of considering someone for sainthood until five years after death. But many in the vast crowds of mourners here want John Paul canonized immediately, and thus recognized as someone who lived a life of great charity and heroic virtue and who is worthy of imitation, which is how the church defines a saint.

''We already named him a saint," Ivona Misiak, 34, of Warsaw said after the funeral. ''We don't wait for the church or anyone else to tell us that is what he is. We know it."

Church leaders say there is little question about John Paul II's saintliness, just about whether to expedite the process of formalizing the declaration.

''I don't think I ever had any doubt about it [his saintliness]," said Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington. Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, asked whether John Paul II qualifies as a saint, said simply, ''I think so."

But, despite the popular sentiment for immediate sainthood for John Paul II, there appears to be little support among church leaders and scholars to push up the investigation of his virtues and the process of determining whether he has performed the requisite two posthumous miracles.

''Even the Major Leagues wait five years after retirement to consider a player for the Hall of Fame," said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

The waiting period allows church officials to get some distance from grief and adulation to fairly assess the virtues of a possible candidate, scholars said.

''We need a little time between death and the assessment of anyone, before we think of canonization," said Lawrence S. Cunningham, also a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. ''Personality cults shift; when I was a very young man I was in Rome when Pius XII died -- everyone called him a living saint and Life Magazine said that he was the most original theological mind since Thomas Aquinas! The encomia and the crowds need to dissipate before a fair judgment can be made."

But Cunningham noted that the crowds in Rome are so huge, ''it is almost as if they are doing a canonization by acclamation."

Even more conservative theologians say the church should stick with its standard procedures for canonization.

''In the long run, this pope will probably qualify -- he looks to be a very important figure -- but there is no rush," said the Rev. John Wauck, a professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross and a member of Opus Dei. ''I think it's likely the process of his canonization will begin very soon, but the church has a long memory, and a lot of patience, so five years is very soon."

Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago told a news conference here yesterday that the popular movement to fast-track sainthood for John Paul II was ''against the process," and that the five-year wait for canonization was ''there for a good reason."

Over the 26 years of his papacy, John Paul II canonized 483 saints in 52 ceremonies, according to the Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff. John Paul II waived the five-year rule just once, for the beatification of Mother Teresa in 2003, allowing an investigation into her life to begin just two years after her death.

This is not the first time that crowds have demanded immediate canonization of a popular pope. But the canonizations of popes in recent years have moved slowly -- the cause of Pius XII has been delayed by concerns over whether he adequately protested against the Nazis.

Only a handful of popes have been canonized in modern times. In the early church, people were canonized by popular acclaim, and no clear lists of canonizations exist.

''When John XXIII died [in 1963], the reaction was every bit as great as it is today," said Ken Woodward, the author of ''Making Saints: Inside the Vatican: Who Become Saints, Who Do Not, and Why."

''There is this sentiment right when somebody has died -- we think we have to make a saint of him. But the rules themselves say you shouldn't allow popular sentiment to sway you," he said.

A top adviser to the Vatican on canonizations, the Rev. Paolo Molinari, who is a retired professor of theology at the Gregorian Pontifical University in Rome, said that in order to canonize John Paul II, the church will have to review his entire life, and see if he has performed posthumous miracles.

For some, miracles will be easy to supply.

''I don't know how many people it takes to [document a miracle]," said Wojciech Cegielski, a broadcaster for Polish Radio, ''but in Poland you have many people who will sign a document."

Attilio Polsoni, 43, who held up one end of a 16-foot ''Santo Subito" banner at yesterday's funeral, said, ''Just look at this square, look at what has happened, look at the heads of state who could never agree on standing in the same place. They are all here together for John Paul. If that is not a miracle, then a miracle has never happened."

Michael Paulson can be reached at Charles M. Sennott of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Sophia Celeste contributed to this report from Vatican City.

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