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Pope John Paul the miracle worker?

Last year, Slawomir Oder opened a very different letter among the many he receives.

india Updated: Mar 19, 2006 15:28 IST
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Last year, Monsignor Slawomir Oder opened one of the many letters he receives from people who think Pope John Paul should be declared a saint.

He felt a strange sensation. This letter was different.

In it, a French nun said she had been suffering from a precocious form of Parkinson's disease but that the symptoms disappeared after she prayed to John Paul for nine days.

"The letter was very simple and delicate, not triumphal," Oder recalled in his cluttered office in the Basilica of St John Lateran as the Vatican prepares to commemorate the first anniversary of John Paul's death on April 2.

"The way she described what happened was humble, not demanding. She did not say 'I have been cured by a miracle.'"

The softly spoken 46-year-old Oder, who is in charge of promoting the sainthood case for the late Pope for the diocese of Rome, went to France to see the nun and talk to her doctors.

"I am encouraged because from the medical charts and medical history, we so far have not found a human explanation," he said.

John Paul suffered from Parkinson's disease in his last decade. He trembled violently and could not pronounce his words or control his facial muscles. In the end, his throat was so ravaged that he needed tubes for air and food.

An initial probe by doctors and Catholic Church investigators did not find a rational medical explanation for the cure. Investigators will now start a more formal and detailed inquiry of the suspected miracle cure.

"Reputation of holiness"

Last May, Pope Benedict put his predecessor on the fast track to sainthood by dispensing with Church rules that normally impose a five-year waiting period after a candidate's death before the procedure that leads to sainthood can even start.

That same month, Rome archdiocese published an edict asking Catholics to come forward with evidence "in favour or against" John Paul's reputation of holiness.

One proven miracle is required after John Paul's death for beatification -- the first step to sainthood. The miracle must be the result of prayers asking the dead Pope to intercede with God. Another would be necessary for full sainthood.

The French nun, whom Oder declined to identify, worked to help unwed mothers keep their babies rather than abort.

"I see this as a sign of God's creativity because there are two aspects that are particularly linked to John Paul," he said.

"First, she had the same illness we all saw in him in his last years. Second, she was dedicated to helping life in its early stages and we all know how dear defending life from the moment of conception was to John Paul," he said.

Many Catholics are convinced of John Paul's holiness. Crowds at his funeral chanted "Santo Subito" ("Make him a saint now").

Oder, who is charged with compiling the evidence into a long report for the Vatican, has received more than 3,000 e-mails or letters from every continent, most from people professing to have been helped after praying to the Pope.

Shards of a relic

Others say they need help with a problem. Still others ask for a relic of the late Pope and usually get a tiny thread of his white cassock glued to a card with his picture and marked "ex indumentis", Latin for "from the clothing."

Twice as many letters, around 800, came from Spanish-speaking countries as from the pope's native Poland.

"There has been incredible interest ... I am always feeling people breathing down my back asking 'when is everything going to be ready?' I don't see this as pressure but rather as a sign of affection so many people had for John Paul," Oder said.

Pope Benedict will travel to Poland in May and while many there would like to see swift movement towards beatification, Oder said there was no pressure from the Vatican.

"We are not going to allow ourselves any shortcuts. We are doing this with the utmost seriousness," he said.

Oder will send documentation on John Paul's life and his "reputation for holiness" to the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

If the Congregation approves the cause -- seen as certain -- Pope Benedict will issue a decree recognising his predecessor's "heroic virtues." If a miracle is definitively recognised, John Paul will then move on to beatification.

In past centuries, the saint-making procedure was often long and expensive, but modern communications have made it faster.

Many Catholics believe John Paul's life of suffering and service was clear to all, and many who knew or worked with him are alive. This will speed things up significantly.

Oder said he was also processing testimony from people who believed John Paul should not be made a saint.

In December, 11 dissident theologians said they opposed sainthood, saying the Church should also consider the "negative evaluation" liberal critics have of his 27-year papacy.

"It would be unthinkable that someone with such a great, rich, varied background, who had so much impact on history, would not prompt criticism," Oder said, adding those who wrote to him to oppose sainthood accounted for less than one per cent."

"This process is something that has to be done in all seriousness, not only to demonstrate his holiness ... but above all for history, to leave behind all the richness of this man and all his contribution to the life of the Church."