Candidates are usually required to wait five years before being considered.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
ROME -- Pope John Paul II was placed Tuesday on what is expected to be a record-breaking sprint toward sainthood, amid mounting popular pressure for the beatification process to be completed by summer's end.
At a grand ceremony at Rome's Basilica of St. John Lateran, the officials who will examine his case took a solemn oath of secrecy and vowed to accept no gifts or money in pursuit of their duties, marking the official start of the "inquiry into the life, virtues and reputation of sanctity of the servant of God, John Paul II" just three months after his death.
The inquiry is the first step in a labyrinthine process that often takes decades and sometimes centuries. Under Vatican rules, a candidate normally must wait at least five years before his or her case can even be examined.
But after mourners at his funeral in April made their views forcefully known, chanting "Santo subito!" ("Sainthood now!") and waving banners demanding John Paul's immediate canonization, Pope Benedict XVI waived the waiting period, paving the way for the case to be heard in record time.
In a reminder of the late pope's continuing hold over the hearts of many faithful, hundreds of people crowded into the church and spilled onto the square outside where they followed the proceedings on large TV screens. When Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the vicar of Rome, declared his hope that the process "will quickly reach its crowning," they cheered and chanted "Santo subito!" as they had at the funeral.
Many came from John Paul's native Poland, and they expressed hope that his case would swiftly be resolved.
"In Poland, we want John Paul II to be an 'express' saint," insisted Jack Jablonski, a baker who traveled from his homeland to attend the event. "It must take no more than three months."
On the eve of the ceremony, the late pope's former private secretary, Stanislaw Dziwisz, who now is archbishop of Krakow, Poland, intensified the pressure on the Vatican to speed up the process, saying it was his "dream" that John Paul should be beatified, the first step toward sainthood, in August, when Pope Benedict travels to his native Germany.
Such a move would offer a sign of "Polish-German reconciliation" after the horrors of World War II, the archbishop told the Polish news agency PAP.
"The world already canonized Pope John Paul II," Dziwisz said. "We are now only waiting for confirmation of this fact."
Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the Polish priest appointed to lead John Paul's case, said he doubted his work could be completed that fast.
"I wish," he said. "But I think it will be impossible. I have to receive the testimony of many witnesses, and some of them may be difficult to find."
According to the church rules, John Paul will also be required to perform at least one medically certified miracle before he can be beatified and another in order to secure full sainthood. The miracles must have taken place after his death.
The miracle rule has been the stumbling block of many a would-be saint, and the library at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the Vatican office charged with investigating claims, is crammed with hundreds of dusty volumes of testimony detailing the saintly deeds of candidates still awaiting proof of a miracle.
But with few people likely to raise any objections to the canonization of a man already hailed as a saint by many Roman Catholics, John Paul II's fast track seems assured.
Reports of miracles attributed to him already have begun pouring in, Oder said, some of them contained in more than 19,000 e-mails sent to the official Web site promoting his cause since it was launched last week.
Meanwhile, a Catholic association in Rome has suggested a way to circumvent the miracle rule by proposing that John Paul be declared a martyr. Martyrs who die for their faith are exempted from the miracle requirement for beatification, though not for full sainthood.
Although John Paul did not die in the 1981 assassination attempt against him, he was seriously wounded and could have died, thereby offering "great testimony of faith," suggested the group, Tiberis Custos, in a petition to the Rome diocese. His eventual death 24 years later was the "seal" of his martyrdom, the group said.
The Rome diocese is responsible for presenting the case for sainthood; it will be up to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to judge its merits.
Pope Benedict will then make the final decision on the sanctity of a man who canonized more saints than all his predecessors combined, and who was accused from time to time of stretching the rules in order to accommodate his favorite candidates.
He waived the waiting period to launch the beatification of Mother Teresa a year after her 1997 death, was accused of bending the miracle rule to beatify two Polish monks and on one occasion canonized a record 103 people at a single sitting.
He also streamlined the process to make it easier for ordinary people to become saints. Among his reforms was the abolition of the centuries-old position of "devil's advocate," whose job it was to argue against the case of a claimant.