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 official application to Rome, then judicial proceedings as bishops debated the candidate's reputation. Following this, the pope authorized an examination of the corpse to see if the body had not decayed—signs of preservation usually worked in the candidate's favor. Finally, eyewitnesses had to prove the candidate had performed two miracles—the preeminent sign of "divine favor" that marked these Christians as extraordinary.

John Paul II changed this process dramatically. First, he put the responsibility for gathering evidence into the sole hands of the local bishop. More importantly, he abolished the entire legal system that had grown up around the canonization process and in its place made critical biographies his primary method for determining sainthood. The news shocked the Catholic hierarchy—lawyers lost their jobs and ecclesiastical historians gained new status.

International Pope

The shift in strategy couldn't have been more sweeping. Not only did John Paul II streamline the process significantly, he acted on his famed international focus by frequently going abroad for candidates. In 1984, for example, he canonized 103 Korean martyrs in Seoul who died under state persecution. Four years later, he recognized 116 Vietnamese martyrs. In 2000, he canonized 120 Chinese martyrs, a move that prompted strong protest from the Chinese government.

John Paul II also canonized Catholics whose stories continue to evoke powerful emotions in the West. Edith Stein, a convert from Judaism to Christianity, died a victim of Nazi Germany in 1942. "She is a witness to God's presence in a world where God is absent," wrote a professor who knew her intimately. The pope agreed and honored this "daughter of Israel" with sainthood in 1998.

But this pope has made some highly controversial decisions too. Critics contend last year's canonization of Mexico's legendary Juan Diego simply panders to the huge bloc of Latin American Catholics wanting their own indigenous saint—and is short on documentary evidence, besides. The incident calls into question the ease with which the pope has done away with legalities meant to safeguard against bogus saints.

Why the streamlined process and the rush of new saints?

The pope's aim through all of this has been to shift attention away from Catholic bureaucracy and toward pastoral care, says biographer George Weigel. This is the same motive behind the extensive international traveling that has made John Paul II one of the most recognized personalities worldwide. His huge popularity with Catholics suggest the people approve.

Protestant Saints?

Admittedly, many Protestants don't see the point of saint-making. After all, the Reformation was in part a rejection of the cultic veneration of saints that had grown up in medieval Europe. But if they are honest, Protestants will recognize they have "saints" too.

Take, for example, John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, which details the stories not only of British and French Protestants suffering under Catholic persecution, but also of America's first missionaries. Or think of the modern-day apologists accorded near-legendary status by appreciative Protestants—some students at Wheaton College jokingly refer to C. S. Lewis as the college's patron saint. Biographies abound of Christian leaders revered by Protestants as much as Catholics—indeed, Christian History's mission has always been, in part, to bring these stories before a broader audience.

The best argument for special recognition—if not canonization—of such "heroes of the faith" may come from John Paul II himself. In his speech beatifying Mother Teresa, he entreated his listeners to model their lives on this woman who took seriously Jesus' command to store up treasures not on earth but in heaven:

"In her, we perceive the urgency to put oneself in a state of service, especially for the poorest and most forgotten, the last of the last."

A chief reason the church makes saints, in other words, is to inspire everyone else to live like them.

Steven Gertz is editorial coordinator of Christian History.