VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI moved two of his predecessors closer to possible sainthood Saturday, signing decrees on the virtues of the beloved Pope John Paul II and Pope Pius XII, who has been criticized for not doing enough to stop the Holocaust.
The decrees mean that both men can be beatified once the Vatican certifies that a miracle attributed to their intercession has occurred. Beatification is the first major step before possible sainthood.
Some historians and Jewish groups have argued Pius should have done more to prevent the deaths of 6 million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators, but the Vatican insists Pius used quiet diplomacy to try to save Jews. The German-born Benedict’s approval of a decree about his “heroic virtues” is certain to set off a new round of criticism from Jewish organizations.
In contrast, John Paul is admired by Jews. During his 27-year pontificate he forged diplomatic ties with Israel, prayed at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, and was the first pope in history to visit a synagogue.
Benedict too made an official visit to Israel and has already made two visits to synagogues. But his decision to take a step forward in Pius’ long-delayed beatification process will likely spark further outrage among Jews still incensed over Benedict’s rehabilitation earlier this year of a Holocaust-denying bishop.
The Rev. Peter Gumpel, who has worked for two decades as the independent judge on Pius’ cause and has long championed him as a great defender of the Jews, said he was “delighted” with the pope’s decision.
“I’m glad that the truth has been professed,” he told The Associated Press.
No dates for the beatification ceremonies were announced, but Italian and Polish media widely reported that John Paul could be beatified as early as October.
Benedict heeded popular calls and put the Polish-born John Paul on the fast track for possible sainthood just weeks after his April 2, 2005, death, waiving the customary five-year waiting period and allowing the investigation into John Paul’s life and virtues to begin immediately.
Monsignor Slawomir Oder, who has spearheaded John Paul’s cause, told Polish reporters at the Vatican that this was a moment of “great joy and satisfaction.”
“An important stage in the process was closed, but we still need to complete the procedure concerning the assumed miracle,” he said.
A few weeks ago, the Vatican’s saint-making office, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, signed off on John Paul’s case after panels of theologians, cardinals and bishops reviewed a massive dossier on John Paul’s life and said he deserved to be included in a list of candidates with heroic virtues.
Panels of doctors, cardinals, bishops and other experts must still sign off on a purported miracle concerning the cure of a young French nun who suffered from Parkinson’s disease and prayed to John Paul.
Two months after he died, she woke up free of the same disease that had impaired the late pontiff himself.
Before signing off on the decree Saturday, Benedict met with congregation members and told them their work was instrumental in giving the faithful models for Christian life.
“Each beatification and canonization is for Christians a strong encouragement to live intensely and enthusiastically Christ’s path toward the fullness of Christian existence and the perfection of charity,” he said.
John Paul’s saint-making cause has moved ahead at record speed and his beatification could be the fastest in modern time if the miracle is approved soon. The Vatican had only waived the five-year waiting period once before, for Mother Teresa, who died in 1997 and was beatified by John Paul in 2003.
When Benedict waived the waiting period for John Paul, he was heeding the calls of “Santo Subito!” (or “Sainthood Immediately”) which erupted in St. Peter’s Square during John Paul’s funeral Mass.
In addition to John Paul and Pius, the pope also declared that a young Polish priest, Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko, was a martyr for the faith after he was kidnapped and killed in 1984 by Poland’s communist-era secret police. The martyr designation means he can be beatified without a miracle.
That will give Poland a local beatification ceremony next year since the Polish-born John Paul will most likely be beatified in Rome.
Benedict approved a second miracle for an Australian woman, Mary Mackillop, paving the way for her to be declared Australia’s first saint.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.
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