VATICAN CITY - Catholic saints are said to be the stuff of miracles, celestial servants who bend God's ear to aid the desperately ill. But Pope Francis may be sending a new message to the globe's one billion Catholics.
In the 21st century, maybe saints can be a little less miraculous.
On Sunday, hundreds of thousands gathered in St. Peter's Square and in front of screens erected across Rome for the canonizations of John Paul II and John XXIII - the first time in the 2,000-year history of the church that popes were being jointly proclaimed saints. But for some, a question emerges: Is the bar being lowered for sainthood?
The path to sainthood for John Paul was the fastest in modern history, raising eyebrows among traditionalists for packing a painstaking process that can sometimes take centuries into nine short years.
In the case of John, Francis took what sticklers decry as an even more radical step. He dispensed with the Vatican's modern requirement for two vetted and verified miracles to be declared a saint, effectively accepting a single 1966 case of a nun said to have been cured of gastrointestinal hemorrhaging after praying to John as enough.
Such moves by popes are not unprecedented and John Paul was particularly known as a saint-making machine willing to bend the rules. But in only 13 months, Francis has already exercised his right to "equipollent canonization" - a papal prerogative to fast-track saints by requiring fewer proven miracles - more times than any other pontiff since Leo XIII, who served from 1878 to 1903. In three cases, Francis elevated saints without a single confirmed miracle under their virtuous belts.
Francis has yet to spell out his rationale, and in the benevolent dictatorship that is Vatican City, it is not in the nature of clerics to demand explanations from a reigning pope. But for better or worse, Francis' tendency to bypass the normal channels for certifying miracles is generating friction inside the ancient Vatican walls even as it reignites an age-old debate over the nature of Catholic saints.
Some hope the reforming new pope is moving to modernize the image of saints. The time has come, they say, to shift the emphasis from the mystical nature of saints toward their status as role models. Still others are pressing for a new definition of miracles, embracing not just vanished tumors and healed aneurysms, but also drug addicts who quit and divorced couples reunited after praying to prospective saints.