Vatican experts have attributed a miraculous healing to the intercession of the late Pope John Paul II, a ruling that appears to push the beloved Polish pontiff a crucial step closer to sainthood even as criticisms of his lengthy reign have mounted since his death in 2005.
A leading Vatican-watcher, Andrea Tornielli of the Italian daily Il Giornale, reported
this week that medical and theological experts with the Vatican congregation charged with overseeing the canonization process have affirmed that a French nun was cured of Parkinson's disease -- an affliction similar to the one that claimed John Paul's life -- and there was no medical explanation.
The experts at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints determined that the cure was a miracle and resulted from the nun's prayers for the intercession of John Paul. Cardinals and bishops on the committee are to meet in mid-January to vote on the report from the experts before sending it to Pope Benedict XVI for final approval, and no delay is expected. Church policy decrees that two verified miracles are required before someone's sainthood is formally confirmed.
(According to Catholic doctrine, all Christians in heaven are considered saints; canonization is the church's formal declaration that a person is indeed in paradise and that their memory is worthy of veneration, and that Catholics may pray to that saint to intercede with God on behalf of some cause here on earth.)
In 2009 Pope Benedict declared that John Paul was a person of "heroic virtue," the first step to sainthood, and the verification of a miracle due to his intercession would pave the way toward beatification, the last step before canonization, which would require a second miracle.
Yet even as crowds at John Paul's funeral in 2005 chanted "Santo Subito!," demanding the Vatican make him a saint right away, the intervening years have not been as kind to the memory of the late pontiff, whom some conservatives were already championing as "John Paul the Great." Reports of how badly John Paul managed the clergy sex abuse crisis, for example, have made some Catholics view the prospect of his imminent beatification with alarm.
"This is madness," writes
Michael Sean Winters, a columnist for National Catholic Reporter, a leading Catholic periodical. "After years of being frustrated at the slow pace with which the Vatican embraces change, in this one instance where haste could spell disaster, they appear to be rushing."
Many other commenters echoed that unease.
The Vatican has a five-year waiting period after a person's death before a cause for sainthood can be launched, thus allowing passions and grief to cool into genuine veneration and sober analysis of the deceased's virtues. That can also mean centuries will elapse before someone is declared a saint, as happened with Joan of Arc, for example.
But popes are increasingly becoming prime candidates for sainthood -- a new and often problematic trend, as I have noted elsewhere
-- and sometimes even the Vatican is overwhelmed by the emotions of the day and waives the five-year waiting period, which Benedict XVI did for John Paul within weeks of his death.
Since then, however, details have emerged about John Paul's management, or mismanagement, of many aspects of church affairs, clouding his once haloed legacy. And there could be more, as Winters warns.
"It would be a shock to the very idea of beatification if, shortly after Pope John Paul II was beatified, especially damning evidence of corruption close to the papal throne emerged," he writes.
Tornielli of Il Giornale suggested that John Paul could be beatified as early as April 2, the sixth anniversary of his death, or on May 18, his birthday. But NCR's John Allen
, another top Vaticanista, believes Oct. 16, the anniversary of John Paul's historic election in 1978, is more likely "given the logistical challenges of organizing what is likely to be the most massive public gathering in Rome since the events following the death of John Paul II in 2005."
Apart from further revelations on the sex abuse front, questions could also emerge in the intervening time about the miracle attributed to John Paul's intercession.
The French nun who reported the cure is Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, who was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Parkinson's disease in 2001. The nun said
she wrote the late pope's name on a piece of paper one night in June 2005 and awoke the next morning cured and able to resume work as a maternity nurse.
Media reports earlier this year suggested that Sister Marie may have had a relapse, and at least one physician questioned the original diagnosis of Parkinson's disease. But the Vatican experts have apparently put those doubts to rest, whether others will or not.