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COLUMN ONE : The Pope’s Passion for New Saints : Perhaps no pontiff has enshrined as many of the faithful as John Paul II. Where his church is growing, is threatened or needs a boost, his strategy is to make role models into rallying symbols.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s a holy rampage, a beatific binge.

Pope John Paul II, one of history’s greatest saint-makers, will journey to Asia next week on a sanctifying mission. He will add three more heroes to his church’s swelling hall of fame.

Beatification of three new Asian “blesseds” exemplifies John Paul’s determined expansion of the select club in which the Roman Catholic Church honors its most revered members.

Saints--holy men and women who lived and died as examples of their faith--have been revered by Catholics for 2,000 years. Still, beyond centuries-shrouded icons, the Pope believes that today’s 950 million Catholics should have more immediate, more accessible role models.

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Thus, in 16 years he has created almost five times as many saints as all of his 20th-Century predecessors combined. By now, the sheer number of new saints from ever-widening geographic, cultural and social strata, together with John Paul’s eagerness to publicly honor them, is a hallmark of his extraordinary papacy.

From one perspective, this month’s 11-day Asian trip will be a gamble because of the 74-year-old Pope’s health; the grueling, four-nation swing will test the stamina of history’s most-traveled pontiff as well as his slow-healing right leg, which he broke last spring.

Still, in John Paul’s view, the 20,000-mile journey is worth the risk. It gives him the chance to do two of his favorite things: to meet young people and to publicly enshrine Catholic paragons.

The ecclesiastical highlight of his 63rd trip abroad, which opens at a youth festival in Manila, will be the gifts of faith that John Paul bears to Catholic communities in Papua New Guinea, Australia and Sri Lanka.

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In each country, the Pope will beatify the first local Catholic to be accorded the treasured title of “Blessed” and, thus, launched on the road to sainthood: a married catechist martyred in Papua New Guinea; a doughty Australian woman who founded an order of nuns; a 17th-Century preacher remembered as “the Apostle of Sri Lanka.”

In the Catholic Church, blesseds are figures of heroic Christian virtue who are declared worthy of religious honor on a local basis. People pray to them. If a subsequent miracle through the individual’s intercession can be proved, a blessed may be canonized, inscribed in the Canon of Saints, as meriting reverence by the entire church.

“In recent years the number of canonizations and beatifications has increased. These show the vitality of the local churches, which are much more numerous today than in the first centuries and in the first millennium,” John Paul observed recently without tipping his own guiding hand.

Asia’s three new blesseds are emblematic of growth under John Paul that is at once historic and calculated. He encourages new saints, but particularly blesseds, as rallying symbols for Catholics in places where his church is growing, where it is threatened or where it simply needs a boost.

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As the Pope well knows, proclaiming new blesseds and saints invariably awakens great excitement, whether at St. Peter’s, where hundreds of thousands may come, or at down-home ceremonies joyously presided over by a visiting pontiff.

“Making saints is part of John Paul’s strategic genius, a way of making the church as an institution more personalized and keeping it before the public,” said Tad Szulc, American author of a forthcoming biography of the Pope. “From the outset, he has sought to make it popular, active and as public as possible.”

Even in the context of a 2,000-year-old institution, John Paul’s numbers are staggering. Since his election in 1978, the Pope has directed 606 beatifications and 268 canonizations. Between 1903 and 1978, his seven predecessor Popes beatified 79 Catholics and canonized 98. Between 1588 and 1988, the church canonized 679 saints, according to Vatican records.

As a matter of fact, nobody knows how many saints there are. Or even how many of them, like debunked St. George, he of the dragon, are more folklore than fact.

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Beyond the dry Vatican lists, though, saints are a fact of life in Catholic countries where virtually every village, every trade has its own patron saint. Churches are named after saints, and so are babies. The Italians have the most saints, followed by the Spanish.

And there are plenty more to come. The Vatican’s Congregation for Sainthood Causes has more than 1,000 cases pending. Some, like one for Spain’s Queen Isabella, date to the 15th Century; more recent ones include causes for 20th-Century Popes Pius XII, Paul VI and John XXIII.

Death, like virtue, is a prerequisite for sainthood. There are no “living saints,” although contemporary giants like Mother Teresa of Calcutta and John Paul himself are 21st-Century saint shoo-ins.

Congregation Prefect Cardinal Angelo Felici says 194 completed causes for beatification and canonization are awaiting final resolution.

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They must be scrutinized by panels of consulting theologians, historians and, in the case of candidates to whom miracles are ascribed, physicians. A candidate needs one certified miracle for beatification and a second one after beatification for sainthood; martyrs are first-miracle exempt.

Technically, in the Vatican’s eyes, only God can make a saint. It is up to the church to recognize and honor them. That process long has been under way in one guise or another, but seldom at today’s pace.

John Paul paints with fine strokes: Mission-days Friar Junipero Serra, California’s first blessed, was beatified with four others at a single 1988 ceremony; that same year, Katherine Drexel, a 19th-Century Philadelphia nun, was beatified along with two Franciscan missionary martyrs stoned to death at Gondar, Ethiopia, on March 3, 1716.

And this Pope also wields a broad brush: 85 English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh martyrs from the 16th and 17th centuries were beatified in a 1987 ceremony; 118 Vietnamese martyrs in 1988; seven Thai martyrs in 1989; 122 seminarians, priests and other religious who died for their faith in the Spanish Civil War, in 1992.

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A few years ago, there were whispers of concern among traditionalists at the Vatican over the number of new saints, the speed at which they were being produced--and the quality of some of them.

Clearly, those whispers made no impression on John Paul. “Under this Pope, the priorities are for lay saints, and for saints from countries and peoples which have not yet had any saints,” said one clerical expert at the Congregation for Sainthood Causes, where officials, by tradition, are not identified by name.

Thus, on his Asian trip, 19th-Century nun Mary Mackillop will become Australia’s first saint, and 17th-Century missionary Joseph Vaz, who cared for Catholics persecuted by Protestant Dutch officials, will be formally recognized in Sri Lanka, where he is an icon for the Catholic community.

Under John Paul, saint-making is less cumbersome than it once was. But even since a 1983 streamlining, it remains a long process of investigation, exposition and analysis as detailed, as punctilious, as closely examined and as fiercely defended as a doctoral thesis.

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One reason is that Catholics have always taken their saints seriously. Saints, whether sanctioned by the Vatican, by history or by local lore, can intercede with God for a supplicant, Catholics believe.

In places such as Italy, Spain and Latin America, saints are almost tangible essences. Catholics turn to them for help in confronting the vicissitudes of daily life.

“Saints are the friends of God. They mirror the church’s concept of Christian perfection and are meant to be imitated. Saints help us to envision what the good Christian life really is,” said the Rev. John Navone, a biblical theologian at the Vatican’s Gregorian University.

Saints have been an integral part of church life since the beginning, figures of holy reputation around whom cults sprang up, from the apostles to Christians martyred in the Colosseum.

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Across 2,000 years, though, sainthood has largely been a monopoly of priests and nuns. “Religious orders are institutes for perfection. It is natural that perfection is achieved more easily in them than in other states of life,” said Felici of the Congregation for Sainthood Causes, in a traditional view that John Paul is openly challenging.

The keystone of John Paul’s reform, in fact, is precisely to focus less on above-the-fray clerical do-gooders and more on go-to-work, pay-the-bills people with whom modern Catholics can most readily identify.

“There is a sense that, as inspiring examples, the new blesseds and saints should have a pastoral relevance. And people, of course, identify more with their own time and culture,” said another Congregation saint scrutinizer.

John Paul seeks not just more lay saints but also, to the consternation of Vatican hard-liners, more married saints. Some church leaders have trouble imagining how, sex and all, married couples live virtues that correspond to their own vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

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The Pope, though, has no doubts, as he made plain in a letter to Catholics late last year: “Precisely because we are convinced of the abundant fruits of holiness in the married state, we need to find the most appropriate means for discerning them and proposing them to the whole church as a model and encouragement for other Christian spouses.”

As ever, change is slow at the Vatican, but it is coming. Eleven beatifications in 1994 involved priests or members of religious orders. In the other three, John Paul beatified a lay catechist from Zaire, an Italian mother cited for keeping her family together despite being abandoned by her husband, and an Italian pediatrician who died rather than have an operation that would have killed the child she was carrying.

Papua New Guinea’s Peter ToRot is an example of the church’s married, new-age heroes. His wife was pregnant with their third child when he was martyred in 1945.

Many causes, particularly if they involve famous personages from bygone days, produce bulky historical documentation--the pending cause of England’s 19th-Century theologian Cardinal John Henry Newman has already generated 200,000 pages. By contrast, the cause of ToRot makes short, if moving, reading.

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“This was an easy case because it was all testimony and there was unanimous agreement that he died for his faith. People have prayed to him ever since,” said the Rev. Hugo Vanermen, archivist for the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart who promoted ToRot’s cause.

ToRot was a catechist, or lay teacher, working on the island of New Britain when Japanese troops arrived in 1942. When missionary priests were interned, ToRot remained in the village of Rakunai. He led services, taught school, baptized babies, witnessed marriages and “read the burial service for neighbors who died from bombs or natural causes,” according to a biography prepared by the Archdiocese of Rabaul in Papua New Guinea.

He continued to practice his faith under increasing pressure from the Japanese--"the only catechist,” the biography says, “who willfully refused the Japanese edict that there were to be no more prayers, baptism, marriages and men could take more than one wife if they wanted to.”

Repeatedly detained and beaten, ToRot died in a military jail, apparently a victim of poison-by-injection administered by a Japanese military doctor. He was 33. Seven years after his death, a panel of three priests interviewed 16 witnesses who attested to ToRot’s martyrdom.

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“There was no follow-up over the next 30 years, not because there was any question of the intrinsic merit of the cause, but for reasons of pastoral concern,” says ToRot’s positio , the church’s detailed exposition of his life and virtues.

Between 1950 and 1960, it seems, ToRot’s widow “was far from observing an edifying conduct from a moral point of view. . . . She began to have extra-conjugal relations every now and then.”

Another time, another Pope--and a widow’s peccadilloes might have blighted her husband’s cause for good.

But not in the era of strong-willed John Paul and his saints’ express.

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