By Kim Lawton
Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly
NEW YORK (RNS) Pope John Paul II will move one step closer to sainthood when he is beatified during an elaborate Vatican ceremony on Sunday (May 1). While the Roman Catholic Church has held up heroes, patrons, intercessors and spiritual companions for centuries, the path to sainthood is never easy or quick.
"The lives of the saints show us that God makes holiness out of all sorts of different materials," said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of My Life with the Saints.
While many religious traditions honor people who are considered especially holy, the Catholic Church has a uniquely complex system for declaring someone a saint. The multi-step canonization process has evolved since the 13th century.
"The Catholic Church has a more complicated process than anyone else on almost any topic," Martin told the PBS program "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly." "I think it's important for people to know that when we hold up someone for public veneration or as an example, that their life has been thoroughly investigated and looked at by the Vatican."
The process usually begins in the region where the potential saint lived or is buried. After local Catholics show a particular devotion to the person, the bishop opens an investigation into the case or "cause" for sainthood.
Normally there's a five-year waiting period after the person's death before sainthood can be considered. In the cases of both John Paul and Mother Teresa, however, that waiting period was waived.
"Some people have argued 'Why rush them? You know, what's the rush? I mean, they'll be a saint in 10 years, or 20 years, or 30 years, so why not let the process go its normal route?"' Martin said.
"On the other hand, people say, 'The pope is responding to the desires of people,' which is what people always want the Vatican to do."
The sainthood cause is overseen by a "postulator," or advocate. The Rev. Gabriel O'Donnell, academic dean at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, has served as postulator for two different causes: the Rev. Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, and more recently, Rose Hawthorne, the daughter of 19th-century novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, who cared for low-income cancer patients.
"The first thing you have to do is research anything the person has written or published. And then you begin studying anything they have left behind in terms of documentation. You have to go to archives," said O'Donnell, who admits it can be tedious work.
In order to be a saint, someone must have lived a life of "heroic virtue." According to O'Donnell, the postulator looks for evidence that the person was "holy and good" in his or her personal life.
"You're also looking for the flaws, because the whole idea of the saint is that they've overcome their difficulties," he added, "not that they didn't have any."
O'Donnell said the church "is very strong" in its belief that any negative aspects of the potential saint must also be revealed. "You can't hide anything because the point is to make it as transparent as possible," he said.
Until 1983, the church would appoint someone to argue against the cause -- the "devil's advocate." The position was eliminated by John Paul in 1983.
If all the assembled evidence is approved by the Vatican, the potential saint is declared "venerable," or worthy of consideration. At that point, the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints takes over.
That's when the search begins for a miracle attributed to the person's intercession after his or her death, as evidence that the person is indeed in heaven.
"The church is looking for some sign from God, so it's what we call the 'digitus dei' or the finger of God (that) says 'Yeah,"' O'Donnell said.
Any reported miracles -- most are unexplained healings -- are subjected to rigorous review by a panel of scientists and doctors.
"The miracle ... must be instantaneous. It must be nonrecurring. It must be not attributable to any other treatment basically, and it must just be the result of praying to that one saint, and it must be medically verifiable," Martin said.
If the pope declares that a miracle did indeed occur, the person is eligible for beatification and is given the title "Blessed." Martyrs who die for the faith can be beatified without a verified miracle.
"It's a recognition of the person's holiness and importance for the worldwide church," said Martin.
A second miracle -- occurring after beatification -- must also be verified before sainthood can be declared. And that can take years.
According to O'Donnell, the concept of intercession by the saints is often misunderstood.
"The idea of a saint is that he or she is before the throne of God in heaven, and that one asks them to intercede and pray for us. So we're all praying to God together, because we believe that they are with God, they're the friends of God," he said.