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TALK OF SAINTHOOD IS PREMATURE

Chanting "saint, saint, make him a saint now," crowds of people at St. Peter's Square during Pope John Paul II's funeral brought back a tradition not seen for five centuries, when some saints were named by public acclamation. Some of those, it turned out later, weren't quite saint material.

Only three popes have been canonized since about 1100, though John Paul beatified two others, Pope Pius IX and Pope John XXIII. So they're on the road to sainthood, too, which can take decades, even centuries, after one's death. In the early years of the Catholic Church, virtually every pope was deemed a saint. I counted 43 saints among the first 50 popes listed on a Catholic Web site.

In the 1500s, the Vatican set up a procedure to ensure that those nominated for sainthood were truly holy. Just being a good person won't make you a saint. You'll need a miracle, actually, two, to qualify.

Already certain miraculous cures have been credited to John Paul's intercession -- by his kind touch or even through rosaries that he blessed and later were used by those who were ill. Among the miracle cures:

A 4-year-old Mexican boy with leukemia recovered from his cancer after the pope kissed him on the forehead in 1990 after John Paul instructed the boy to let a dove he was holding fly free.

A Polish teenager, who was being treated with chemotherapy for cancer of the lymph glands, went to meet the pope, who touched him on his bald head last year.

Even Cardinal Francesco Marchisano, who headed the Vatican's office on health issues, personally experienced the pope's special touch after undergoing surgery on his carotid artery. The pope touched the cardinal's throat and said he would pray. "After some time, I was able to speak regularly," he said last week. Although the cardinal didn't call what happened a miracle, many others already are pointing to it as another example of one.

None of those "miracles" -- and many others that the pope's secretary documented by letters the Vatican received during John Paul's 26 years as pope -- count, however, when it comes to qualifying for sainthood. Only miracles that occur after one's death, as a sign that the potential saint is already with God, can count.

No matter. There are cardinals reportedly signing a petition asking that the next pope expedite the sainthood process for John Paul and not wait the minimum five years to begin even considering sainthood. Popes, of course, can waive the rules, as John Paul did for Mother Theresa, who was beatified in 2003, six years after she died.

There's a lot of emotion right now, and it's understandable that some Catholics, who have never known another pope, would hold John Paul up as a saint.

I'll note that there aren't any patron saints for journalists, from what I could find in my handy saints book, but there are a couple of saints for writers. With that in mind, I'll dare to question why John Paul announced 482 saints during his papacy. It took 17 previous popes to come up with a total close to that number. One theory about the pope's embrace of new saints, particularly in Third World countries, is that it helped bring many new recruits to a church that was losing ground in parts of Europe. A marketing strategy of holy proportions.

I'll dare wonder, too, if some of the cardinals' motivation in seeking almost immediate sainthood for John Paul isn't a bit of political posturing as each seeks to wrap himself in the aura of a beloved holy leader. As those cardinals look for the Holy Spirit to guide them in the selection of a new pope, might some of them be suffering from a very human frailty by trying to position themselves as the best one to follow him?

John Paul's humility even as he stood his ground on moral issues of the day made him special. I suspect he would be aghast at this premature talk about sainthood.