Mother Teresa's just one miracle away from sainthood. No, that's not hyperbole—just part of the fast-track canonization process that Pope John Paul II is pushing through the Vatican. Last Sunday crowds flooded St. Peter's Square in Rome to witness the pope's beatification of Mother Teresa, who died in 1997. Since most candidates are not even up for consideration until five years after their death, John Paul II is wasting no time.

But this is not so surprising—if you consider John Paul II's record over the past 25 years. According to the Vatican's official website, the current pope has presided over the canonization of a whopping 476 saints, many of whom are non-European. All other popes in the twentieth century canonized a total of 98 saints.

What drives this powerhouse saint-maker? And what does it mean to canonize saints anyway?

The Method Behind the Madness
From the earliest days of the church, Christians have given martyrs a prominent place in the church's memory. (In the Roman Catholic church, dying for one's faith is the single act that guarantees a candidate's sainthood.) After Constantine, the definition of a saint expanded to include ascetic monks exemplifying holiness and prominent evangelists or scholars zealous in the defense of the faith. Soon the numbers of feasts memorializing saints multiplied exponentially, and in 1234, the Catholic hierarchy set in place a formal procedure for reviewing candidates' credentials.

That procedure—and the authority to make saints—hardened with the challenge of Martin Luther and other Reformers. From then until 1983, canonization involved a long, complex process.

It began with an information-gathering stage, moved on to the local bishop's judgment on the person's orthodoxy, then the ...

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