Expect delays before John Paul II is made a saint

VATICAN CITY — Airline ticket prices often seem to fluctuate randomly, with a given route affordable one day and costly the day after.

But there is a reason why a round-trip ticket from Warsaw to Rome on the weekend of Oct. 16 costs up to three-and-a-half times as much as one for the weekend before or after that: Poles were sure that on that day — the 32nd anniversary of his ascent to the pontificate — the beatification of their beloved Pope John Paul II would take place in St. Peter's Square, and they bought tickets en masse.

But it looks like the Poles were wrong. Karol Wojtyla's beatification process is very close to its end, but is turning out to be more complicated than anticipated. A battle has erupted in the Vatican around the late pope and how he should be remembered, while investigations into how the church handled allegations of sexual abuse by priests is casting new shadows on his image.

On Monday, John Paul II's successor, Pope Benedict XVI, celebrated a memorial mass for the Polish pope at the Vatican: He praised Wojtyla's pontificate and presented him as a model for Catholics, but gave no hint as to when his beatification might happen.

So even though millions of pilgrims called for him to become a "Santo Subito" (saint now) at his funeral on Apr. 2, 2005, the fifth anniversary of John Paul II's death is likely to pass without any news, just like those before it.

The delay is quite unexpected. Pope Benedict waived the mandatory five-year period to begin the beatification process, and after a two-stage process with dozens of interviews and meetings, he signed a decree on Dec. 19, 2009, recognizing Wojtyla's “heroic virtues.” This is usually a stepping stone to beatification and only the Vatican recognition of a “miracle” — such as an inexplicable act of healing — is missing before he can be beatified and declared “blessed.”

Finding a miracle for such a popular pope shouldn't be too complicated a task. In fact, according to reports in the Italian press, the office of the Postulatore — the central bureau that oversees the beatification process — has received reports of more 250 "miraculous" healings by John Paul II.

The Chief Postulatore, Polish Monsignore Slawomir Oder, has settled on the case of a French nun, Marie Simon Pierre, whose Parkinson's disease — the same illness suffered by the late pope — disappeared for no evident medical reason just two months after Wojtyla's death. She says she had prayed asking for the pope's help.

Recently, though, reports in the Polish press have suggested that the nun's illness might have been misdiagnosed. According to the newspaper Rzeczpospolita, she could have suffered from a syndrome similar to Parkinson's, for which there is a known cure.

Rumors that she might have a relapse were then strongly denied in an official statement by French bishops. The alleged miracle, they said, still has to be verified by the Vatican. But doubts remain and a commission of doctors is due to meet in the next weeks to study her case. Should they agree that her recovery was miraculous, the process would then require another vote by Vatican theologians and cardinals, before the final signature by Pope Benedict himself.

With these final hurdles remaining, a media frenzy has focused on the late pope. It was stirred, quite unusually, by the Chief Postulatore himself, who has recently published a book on John Paul II.

The book, "Why a saint?", draws on the documents he collected during the beatification process, particularly on 114 sworn testimonies given by people who knew Wojtyla personally. His initiative was seen as highly unorthodox as all materials relative to a beatification cause are supposed to be Vatican secrets. Oder replied to criticism saying that he doesn't give the names of his sources but just refers to them in general terms.

Among other revelations, the book described how the late pope “flagellated himself both in Poland and in the Vatican”: “In his closet, among the cassocks, there was a hook holding a particular belt for slacks, which he used as a whip.” While bodily penance was common among medieval saints, such as St. Francis of Assisi or Teresa of Avila, the practice is now associated with conservative movements such as Opus Dei and generally abandoned in the Catholic Church.

Other embarrassing news came from Poland, where a lifelong friend of John Paul II, psychiatrist Wanda Poltawska, published their decades-long correspondence, shedding light on a very un-pope-like female friendship.

No one in the Vatican doubts that Wojtyla should eventually be declared a saint. The church knows it needs his universally recognized charisma more than ever, as the sex abuse scandal spreads to continental Europe and touches even Pope Benedict. A global event such as a John Paul II beatification ceremony, which could be attended by millions, would boost the image and status of the papacy.

But now the sex abuse scandal itself might further complicate matters: New revelations show that one of Wojtyla's main proteges, Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ, abused minors and led a double life, fathering at least one son and probably more.

Austrian cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, also recalled, in an interview on Austrian television, how the Vatican Curia during John Paul II's reign obstinately protected Hermann Groer, an archbishop of Vienna who was revealed to have abused minors. After a power struggle behind the Vatican's walls, John Paul II heeded the advice of those who didn't want an investigation and Groer got away with an apology that admitted no guilt. “In the past three years," Groer wrote in 1998, "there have been many often incorrect statements concerning me. I ask God and the people for forgiveness if I have brought guilt upon myself.”

With the scandal building, many in the Vatican want John Paul II on the altars as soon as possible, before other inconvenient aspects of his life come to light. Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, lifetime secretary to Wojtyla and now the powerful archbishop of Krakow, has criticized both Poltawska and Oder, asking the latter to explain his actions in a private meeting.

But the revelations might also shape the image of the future saint. Conservative Catholic analysts have drawn attention to darker sides of Wojtyla's personality, such as his self-flagellation, as they reinforce those inside the church who want a more conservative, traditional approach to Catholicism. They might see benefit in pressing for his beatification at a time when Vatican positions — from celibacy to condoms — look more open to debate.