It's never been easy to become a saint. Traditionally, it's been a slow and cautious business. For a start, you had to be dead. Then you would have to be cross-examined by a sort of council for the prosecution: the Devil's Advocate. And finally, of course, there were the miracles. Lots of them.

But, all that changed – like much else in the Roman Catholic Church – with the arrival of the most charming and media-aware pontiff in Rome’s history. Pope John Paul II dumped the Devil’s Advocate and (perhaps with an eye on his own post-mortem state of affairs) slashed the number of miracles required to be endorsed as a saint.

A ghostly Pope John Paul II floating out at seaThe stately pace of canonisation accelerated alarmingly. At one point it got so quick that even being dead was in danger of being dropped as a qualification. When Mother Teresa was referred to as a living saint by a strident group of followers during her lifetime, they weren’t simply expressing their approval of her dubious record as a humanitarian.They were putting forward a belief that was increasingly taking on the aspects of a cult. And if the Pope could not quite endorse the sentiment while she was alive, he made up for it in record time after her death and saw to it that she entered the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest canonisation in history.

More controversial still was the canonisation of Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer y Albas, priest, fan of General Franco and founder of Opus Dei. Harsh words have been said about Escrivá. It has been alleged that he supported General Pinochet and that he even sunk to Holocaust denial. And then there was the nature of Opus Dei itself. It has been claimed (and strongly denied by the organisation) that Opus Dei borders on cult behaviour and tries to exercise political control. But Escrivá still got into the ranks of the blessed and it seems to have been a miracle that did the trick.

Radiodermatitis sounds as bad as it is. Cancers appear on your hands. You must have skin grafts. And if the grafts don’t work there is only a partial chance that the following and inevitable amputations will. There is no known cure. No cure that is, except for the intercession of our man Escrivá, who stopped the disease in its tracks when it attacked Dr Manuel Nevado Rey. The impressively, if perhaps oxymoronically, named Medical Committee of the Congregation of the Causes of Saints, the body charged with examining the miraculous, unanimously decided that a miracle had occurred. The opinions of cancer specialists are not recorded.

Things have moved on, too, for Blessed Gorg Preca. This Maltese priest has recently completed his second miracle with the healing of a baby who had developed liver complications and who was being treated in King’s College Hospital in London. The child was born on June 15, 2001. Blessed Gorg Preca died in 1962. No matter. A glove belonging to the deceased was found and laid alongside the ailing child. The boy’s subsequent recovery was once again found by our friends in the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to be miraculous.

At the time of writing, though, no single miracle has been indisputably attributed to John Paul II, and two will have to be proven before he can become a saint. One of those, preferably, will come from his time on earth while the other will come from beyond the grave.

This isn’t to say that alleged miracles haven’t been coming thick and fast. The scrutineers at tell us of the disappearance of leukaemia from a Mexican child. A cardinal regained the power of speech after he was touched on the throat by John Paul and the tumour afflicting the brain of an American vanished after a single mass spent in John Paul’s company.

Further reports suggest that a nun suffering from Parkinson’s disease (the same condition that cruelly debilitated John Paul during his lifetime) rose from her bed following prayers by her colleagues addressed to the late Pope. Cardinal Josz Saraiva Martins of the MCCCS told a television interviewer in January 2007 that the careful examination of the nun has been going well and that we could see a decision as early as April. Exactly what that careful examination consists of has not been revealed.

Meanwhile Monsignor Slawomir Oder, who revels in the title of Postulator of the Cause of Beatification, has hinted that other miracles are being considered. Encouraging signs have been reported from a second patient in Europe and more fine and inexplicable things have occurred “somewhere” in South America. We may not be at the stage of the infamous “saint factory” – so called after John Paul proclaimed 120 saints in a single day – but as long as the nun holds up, we could see John Paul reach the stage of “Venerable” this year and enjoy the open-air mass in Rome to proclaim him a saint in time for the Beijing Olypmics in summer 2008.

John Paul didn’t so much change the rules for becoming a saint as simply ignore them when it suited him. And though it suited him more times than any of his predecessors, there were limits.

Archbishop Oscar Romero was an immensely impressive figure. By nature timid and conservative, he nonetheless spoke out against the regime in his native El Salvador during the plague years of dictatorship and civil war in that country. He spoke so loudly that he drew all kinds of attention to himself, including a Nobel Prize nomination in 1979 and an assassin’s bullet in 1980.

John Paul, unswervingly opposed to the liberation theology of the Latin American church (a theology to which Romero himself did not subscribe, but with which his political stance aligned him), implacably refused to consider demands for Romero to be made a saint. No miracles there.

A move by the Jesuits to define miracles as a metaphorical occurrence – so that the healing of a marriage, say, would be considered as miraculous as the healing of cancer – was stopped by John Paul. He insisted that miracles would continue to be viewed the old-fashioned way: as something that was judged to be “inexplicable” by reference to natural laws.

There are views on the process of beatification that shy away from the theatrical and ostentatious element of it all. Is there not a sociological or anthropological aspect to the creation of a saint? Could not the statement that a prominent Catholic has become a saint be the formalised manner in which the Church announces the completion of a communal rite, as Damian Thompson, editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald has argued? Maybe. But John Paul stifled all attempts to move away from all but the most strictly mysterious interpretations of these rites.

The majority of miracles considered by the Vatican concern the healing of the sick, and while the afflicted are indisputably among the people who the Church should be trying to heal, it is possible to detect a certain reticence from the Vatican over the more dashing or exhibitionist type of miracle. Miracles that flatly contradict physics seem to be out, as are the more hawkish ones such as exploits on the battlefield.

Making saints has always required a delicate balance. Too many devalue the spiritual currency. Too few and the whole concept could be thrown open to question.

And for those desperate to find a place for blood-crying statues, miraculous cures, burning bushes, virgin births and all the other paraphernalia of belief, that would never do. ■