Being saintly is never easy. In the early days of Christianity, the holy faced persecution by the superpower of the day and were likely to be killed in imaginative ways: fed to wild beasts in the arena, like St Ignatius of Antioch, or tied to a bull and dragged through the streets, like St Saturninus. Or cooked on a grill, like St Leonard, who is said to have cried out before his death: "I am done on this side; turn me over and eat."
Martyrdom is less common today, but other tests for the pious have multiplied. Consumerism, licentiousness and secularism tempt them at every turn. Neither the 20th century nor the start of the 21st has been lacking in evil. And advances in science have left less room for miracles. The opposite of a sinner now is someone who eats Fairtrade bananas and cycles to work. Little room left, you might think, for exceptional piety. Not so. Sainthood is back in vogue.
At a solemn ceremony at the Basilica of St John Lateran in Rome last week, five black metal chests were delivered to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Among those present was Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre, a French nun in the Little Sisters of Catholic Motherhood. Foremost among the documents in the chests - the results of an in-depth examination of the life and beliefs of the late Pope John Paul II - was evidence of her medically unexplained recovery from Parkin-son's, a miracle attributed to the intercession of the late Pope.
In the glacially slow world of the Vatican, the presentation of the inquiry's results on the second anniversary of John Paul's death is the equivalent of an overnight delivery by FedEx. Canonisation usually takes decades, sometimes centuries. Joan of Arc, for example, was not officially recognised as a saint until 1920, 489 years after the English burnt her at the stake. According to the rules, the process isn't even supposed to start until five years after death. In waiving that requirement for John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI was bowing to the cries of " Santo subito" ("Sainthood now") at his predecessor's funeral.
The Polish Pope's elevation will be quicker than St Joan's for another reason: the reforms he introduced in 1983. Before then, the church demanded proof of two miracles for beatification, the level below full sainthood, and two more for canonisation. Now it requires one for each. Less noted but just as importantly, he abolished the role of Promoter of the Faith, better known as the Devil's Advocate, whose job was to argue against canonisation. The Rev Stephen Wang, a lecturer at Allen Hall Seminary in London and a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Westminster, says the new system is cheaper but no less rigorous.
But it has also made canonisa-tion easier. And Pope John Paul II took full advantage of that. In all, he canonised a record 464 saints, more than any other pope, prompting charges in the press that he was running a "saint factory". Some Catholics worry that the flood of new saints dilutes their importance, or that their credibility could be called into question later if corners are cut now. Scientists regularly challenge the validity of saintly relics; just last week it was found that a Vatican-recognised jar of ashes from St Joan's pyre were the remains of an Egyptian mummy. Still others see a reflection of John Paul's conservative control over the earthly church, where by 2005, all but three of the top posts were filled by his men. "He appointed cardinals on earth and saints in heaven," says the Rev John Drury, a fellow of All Souls, Oxford.
Defenders of the late Pope's generosity with halos say he was just continuing the process started with the Vatican II reforms in the 1960s, when the church finally allowed mass to be celebrated in the vernacular as well as Latin. John Paul's global saints were a recognition that the church's centre of gravity has shifted towards Latin America, Africa and even Asia. …