Sainthood's Fast Track

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

May 22, 2005

The Roman Catholic Church may seem slow to respond to modern times, what with its unyielding doctrine on such issues as birth control. That fuddy-duddy image is being tested, though, by the Vatican's decision to put Pope John Paul II on the fast track for sainthood, waiving the usual five-year wait after death before starting the process.

The church apparently understands that the old way of waiting generations, even centuries, for a popular figure to be canonized doesn't work in the drive-thru era. It was the Google generation, mostly youth groups, that waved signs calling for "Sainthood Now" during John Paul's funeral Mass.

They have more in common with the people of, oh, 1,300 years ago than they may realize. In earlier centuries of Christianity, saints were declared by public acclaim — essentially by lots of believers calling for "Sainthood Now." Legitimate concerns that some of the saintly miracles (and, in fact, some of the saints themselves) never existed led the Vatican to take over the process about 1,000 years ago and turn it into a long, finely honed examination of the candidate's life.

In 1983, John Paul streamlined the sainthood process, getting rid of the "devil's advocate," a sort of prosecutor who would challenge the evidence for sainthood. He also initiated the "fast-track" process — for Mother Teresa, who died in 1997. During his 26-year papacy, John Paul II named 484 saints, more than 15% of the fully recognized 3,000 or so in existence, many revered as patrons for occupations as varied as astronauts and vinegar makers.

All this aids his cause now, though even a quick-response canonization will take years. The first reports of possible miraculous healings attributable to John Paul II have made their way to the Vatican; two posthumous miracles are needed for sainthood.

With its current leadership, the church is unlikely to move quickly, if at all, on important doctrinal issues that divide Roman Catholics. In that case, a fast pass to sainthood for a well-loved pope gives the faithful something to agree on.