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Pope John Paul II moves closer to sainthood Add to ...

The late Pope John Paul II moved closer to sainthood in the Catholic Church on Saturday when Pope Benedict approved a decree recognizing that his predecessor had lived the Christian faith heroically.

The Vatican said Benedict approved the "heroic virtues decree", one of the key steps in the procedure by which the Church recognizes its saints, after a recommendation by a Vatican panel of experts.

The next step will be the recognition of a miracle attributed to John Paul, who died in 2005. That is expected to happen early next year, meaning he can be beatified, the last step before sainthood.

In May 2005, a month after his death, Benedict put John Paul on the fast track 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 start.

Crowds at John Paul's funeral on April 8, 2005 chanted "santo subito" ("make him a saint now").

His 27-year papacy, which began in 1978, was one of the most historic and tumultuous of modern times. During his pontificate, communism collapsed across eastern Europe, including in his native Poland. John Paul was seriously wounded in a 1981 assassination attempt.

The initial phases of a sainthood cause can usually take decades or, in some cases, hundreds of years. In the case of the Polish pope, they were completed in less than three years.

Last year, Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the official in charge of the beatification process, finished a document about 2,000 pages long summarising evidence that John Paul, who was the first non-Italian pope in 450 years, should be made a saint.

The evidence included testimony from hundreds of people and scrutiny of John Paul's life, spoken words and writings.

The Vatican said Father Jerzy Popieluszko, a pro-Solidarity Polish priest killed in 1984 by Polish security police, could be considered a martyr for the faith and would be beatified.

Church officials say they have found a miracle attributed to the intercession of Pope John Paul with God.

Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, a 47-year-old French nun diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, from which Pope John Paul himself suffered, said it inexplicably disappeared two months after his death after she and her fellow nuns prayed to him.

If Benedict approves the miracle, which is likely, then John Paul can be beatified. Another miracle would be required after the beatification to move on to canonization.

Polls have shown many Catholics believe that John Paul was so special that Benedict should skip the beatification process in his case and move him directly to sainthood.

Ms. Simon-Pierre worked as a maternity ward supervisor in Aix-en-Provence.

"I was losing weight day by day. I could no longer write and if I did try to, it was difficult to decipher. I could no longer drive ... because my left leg became rigid," she wrote in 2007.

On June 2, 2005, exactly two months after the Pope's death and after she and her fellow nuns in her religious community prayed to the late pope for her healing, she said she felt the sudden urge to pick up a pen.

"My handwriting was completely legible ... my body was no longer pained, no longer rigid ... I felt a profound sense of peace," she wrote.

Her neurologist and other doctors and psychologists who later examined her could find no medical explanation.

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