April 26th, 2011
10:41 AM ET
By John L. Allen, Jr., CNN Senior Vatican Analyst
Rome (CNN) - The beatification of Pope John Paul II this Sunday will probably be the biggest event in Rome since his death in April 2005, with at least 300,000 people expected to turn out for the ceremony and more than 2 million to take part in beatification-related activities in Rome, including a vigil service on Saturday in Rome’s Circus Maximus and visits to John Paul’s tomb.
Beatification is the next-to-last step in the sainthood process. It means the candidate can be referred to as “blessed,” and that one miracle has been confirmed in his or her name. Another miracle is required for canonization, the formal act of declaring someone a saint.
Here are more questions and answers about the process – and about John Paul II:
What is a saint, and how many are there?
Catholics believe a saint is someone who lived a holy life and who’s already in heaven. Saints are considered role models for people still on earth, and are capable of interceding with God on someone’s behalf when a request for help is made in prayer.
The actual number of saints is impossible to calculate. One well-known work called "Lives of the Saints" lists 2,565 Catholic saints but that doesn’t count thousands of others celebrated in local regions all over the world. The Catholic Church has a feast, All Saints’ Day, on November 1 to honor the countless saints who aren’t formally canonized.
So how does one become a saint?
In one sense it’s a democratic process, beginning with a grassroots conviction that a given person lived a holy life. From there, things unfold in three stages. First, Church officials make a study of the person’s life. In John Paul’s case, a four-volume study stretching over more than 2,000 pages was produced, including testimony from more than 100 witnesses.
Next, one miracle after the candidate’s death is required for be beatification - and another for canonization. Usually the miracles are healings, which must be instantaneous, permanent, and complete, in addition to scientifically inexplicable. Catholics see the miracle as God’s seal of approval, a way of verifying that the saint really is in heaven.
As pope, John Paul II made the sainthood process faster and simpler – but it’s still not cheap. The biggest expenses are usually the ceremonies for beatification and canonization. When St. Josemaría Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, was canonized in 2002, Opus Dei estimated that it had spent roughly $1 million on the process from beginning to end, stretching over three decades.
Why the rush to beatify John Paul II?
John Paul’s beatification is the quickest in modern times, made possible because Pope Benedict XVI waived the normal five-year waiting period after death to get someone’s beatification rolling. Benedict was responding to crowds who chanted “Santo Subito!” (Sainthood Now!) at John Paul’s funeral Mass and to a petition signed by the cardinals who elected Benedict.
In one way, the pace of John Paul’s cause is a result of his own policies. He sped up saint-making in 1983, a move meant to lift up contemporary role models of holiness. Since then, at least 20 candidates have been beatified within 30 years of their death. For the record, John Paul’s is not the most “fast-tracked” sainthood of all time. That distinction belongs to St. Anthony of Padua, who died in June 1231 and was canonized less than a year later.
What was John Paul’s miracle?
It concerns a 49-year-old French nun, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre Normand, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2001 and whose religious community prayed to John Paul II after his death. After writing the late pope’s name on a piece of paper one night, Sister Marie-Simone reportedly awoke the next morning cured and was able to resume her work as a maternity nurse. The miracle has a poetic arc, since John Paul also suffered from Parkinson’s.
Last year, media reports implied that the sister had fallen ill again and that a physician had questioned the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. The Vatican resolved those doubts to its satisfaction, as the miracle was approved by its panels of medical and theological consultants. Sister Marie-Simone will attend the beatification ceremony in Rome this weekend.
Why was John Paul II such a significant pope?
Tradition recognizes 264 popes since St. Peter, described in the Bible as the leader of the disciples of Jesus and regarded by Catholics as the first pope. Only a handful of popes, however, have left a deep mark on history, and John Paul II belongs on that list.
He played a key role in bringing down Communism, made 104 foreign trips and is commonly regarded as having been seen in the flesh by more people than any other figure in history, and improved ties with Judaism and Islam. Internally, John Paul II reenergized Catholicism, inspiring a “John Paul generation” of young lay people, priests and bishops. Some commentators have suggested that he will be remembered as John Paul the Great.
That said, there is debate over some aspects of John Paul’s record, including his handling of the Catholic sexual abuse crisis. Officially, the Vatican insists that beatifying and canonizing a pope is not the same thing as endorsing every decision of his papacy. Instead, it means that despite whatever failures occurred, the pope was nevertheless a holy man.
What’s the next step in making John Paul a saint?
Officials will begin looking for that aforementioned second miracle. If one is approved by the Vatican and by the pope, John Paul II could then be canonized. It’s not clear how long that might take, but there doesn’t seem much suspense about the eventual result: Sooner or later, the Church will add “St. John Paul II” to its list.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.