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Pope John Paul II, who died just nine years ago, becomes a saint today.

Popes on fast track to sainthood

Many fear Francis set miracle bar too low

Pope John XXIII will be canonized today during a solemn ceremony at the Vatican. Pope Francis fast-tracked his path to sainthood.

– Catholic saints are said to be the stuff of miracles, celestial servants who bend God’s ear to aid the desperately ill. But Pope Francis may be sending a new message to the globe’s 1 billion Catholics.

In the 21st century, maybe saints can be a little less miraculous.

Today, hordes of pilgrims will mass in St. Peter’s Square and in front of big screens erected across Rome for the canonizations of John Paul II and John XXIII.

The crowds, along with a global audience, will watch as two popes are jointly proclaimed saints for the first time in the 2,000-year history of the church. But is the bar being lowered for sainthood?

The path to sainthood for John Paul II was the fastest in modern history, raising eyebrows among traditionalists for packing a painstaking process that can sometimes take centuries into nine incredibly short years.

In the case of John XXIII, Francis took what sticklers decry as an even more radical step. He dispensed with the Vatican’s modern requirement for two vetted and verified miracles to become a saint, effectively accepting as enough a single 1966 case of a nun allegedly cured of gastrointestinal hemorrhaging after praying to John XXIII.

Such moves by popes are not unprecedented, and John Paul II was particularly known as a saint-making machine willing to bend the rules.

But in only 13 months, Francis has already exercised his right to “equipollent canonization” – a papal prerogative to fast-track saints by requiring fewer proven miracles – more times than any other pontiff since Leo XIII, who served from 1878 to 1903. In three cases, Francis elevated saints without a single confirmed miracle under their virtuous belts.

Francis has yet to spell out his rationale, and in the benevolent dictatorship that is Vatican City, it is not in the nature of clerics to demand explanations from a reigning pope. But for better or worse, Francis’ tendency to bypass the normal channels for certifying miracles is generating friction inside the Vatican walls even as it reignites an age-old debate over the nature of Catholic saints.

Some hope the reforming new pope is moving to modernize the image of saints. The time has come, they say, to shift the emphasis from the mystical nature of saints toward their status as role models. Still others are pressing for a new definition of miracles in the Internet age, embracing not just vanished tumors and healed aneurysms, but also drug addicts who quit and divorced couples reunited after praying to prospective saints.

“I know the holy father well enough to know that he believes in miracles, as we all do, but the question is simply and purely, should we require the confirmation of miracles for saints?” asked the Rev. Peter Gumpel, a senior Vatican figure and church historian.

One camp in the church is all in favor of lowering the bar. Such a move could open the door to more and faster-made saints, who tend to serve as public relations dynamos for the faith in their countries of origin – a fact seen as a huge bonus as the Vatican casts its eye on fast growth in Africa and Asia.

It could also pave the way to the quicker elevation of potential blockbuster saints such as Mother Teresa, whose first miracle, recognized by the Vatican in 2002, has been challenged by doctors and who is still waiting for confirmation of a second.

The proclamation of saints “helps strengthen the faith of the people,” said the Rev. Slawomir Oder, the Polish monsignor who presented John Paul II’s case for sainthood to Vatican judges.

Yet just as in other areas where the new pope is upending conventions, Francis’ actions are touching a raw nerve with traditionalists who see danger ahead should he continue the trend.

The belief that Catholics can directly pray to saints to intercede with God on their behalf remains a fundamental division between them and many Protestants. If more saints are created without vetted miracles, critics argue that the glow of the faith could fade for millions – especially in parts of Latin America, where the cult of adoration to the statues of saints remains strong.

The dozens of Vatican lawyers, medical experts and theologians involved in the minting of saints consider the process both art and science.

Candidates are generally identified and forwarded to the Vatican from the diocese where they died, with postulators in Rome compiling reports to submit to a Vatican department affectionately known as the “ministry of saints” for review. Worthy candidates are then sent to the pope, who officially deems them “venerable.”

But most can be named saints only after the identification and vetting of miracles – usually unexplained cures made after patients prayed to them for God’s aid. Such claims are verified through exhaustive, if secretive, reviews of documentation including witness testimony and, if available, medical tests. In most cases, one miracle qualifies a candidate for the intermediate step of beatification, while two are required for outright sainthood. Martyrs – or those who died in the name of the church – only need one to rise to sainthood.

Advanced medical technology might seem to explain away most seemingly miraculous phenomena. But Vatican experts involved in the process insist just the opposite. They cite, for example, the before and after brain scans of Floribeth Mora Diaz – a Costa Rican woman who said she was cured of an aneurysm in 2011 after praying to John Paul II – as the kind of open-and-shut case made possible only by grace of modern science.

Yet critics who believe in the mystical abilities of saints argue that when a pope pushes them through without the requisite number of miracles, their powers to intercede with God become more assumed than established. The Rev. Marc Lindeijer, a senior church official in Rome who compiles cases and serves as an advocate for prospective saints, compared elevating saints without vetted miracles to allowing “everyone to be a major league baseball player.”

“Miracles are a great protection of justice, a sign of approval from God,” Lindeijer said.

Yet other observers say Francis, like many before him, is simply cherry-picking favorites, fast-tracking select candidates to save them from a Vatican bureaucracy with a backlog of thousands.