VATICAN CITY – Even though cardinals haven't yet cast a single ballot for a new pope, there's already a pressing item on the future pope's agenda: whether to declare Pope John Paul II (search) a saint outright — or at least accelerate the saint-making process.
As a result, some Vatican watchers say, the popular calls for canonizing John Paul may well influence the voting that begins Monday.
Cardinals are still talking about the issue, an indication that the outpouring of affection for John Paul is very much on their minds as they decide whether the next pope will be someone who follows closely in his footsteps.
In addition, the Italian media — which the cardinals have access to until they are sealed off in the conclave Monday — is fairly obsessed with the issue. Each day, Italian newspapers take another angle on the issue.
Each night at St. Peter's Basilica (search) there's another eulogy for John Paul extolling his saintly virtues — part of the Vatican's nine days of official mourning that will end two days before the conclave begins.
Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, who as prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (search) presides over all beatification and canonization cases, was the latest cardinal to lend his support to the cause, telling the Italian Catholic newsweekly Famiglia Christiana that he fully agreed with mass calls to make the late pope a saint.
But he stressed that church norms are precise in requiring a five-year waiting period for the saint-making process to begin after death — a rule that John Paul himself made but then broke when he decided to start the process just one year after Mother Teresa died in 1997.
There are calls for the next pope to simply declare John Paul a saint based on "popular acclaim" — as was done in the Church's first millennium. Vatican experts, though, say it's more likely the next pope will simply do away with the five-year wait but still require the lengthy investigation into John Paul's life and confirmation of a miracle attributed to him before he could be beatified.
Saraiva said the five-year wait was a "prudent rule, to dilute the emotion that generally accompanies the death of great people of the church."
"But it's obvious that the next pope could decide, after having evaluated it with prudence and wisdom — in favor of a dispensation (of the waiting period), which all of us want in our hearts," he said.
Another cardinal, Frederic Etsou-Nzabi-Bamungwabi of Congo, hailed John Paul as a "saint pope, a great" pope as he arrived at John Paul's funeral, which was interrupted by chants of "Santo, Santo" from the crowd of a half-million.
The Rev. Jean Pierre Ruiz, a theologian and expert on the papacy from St. John's University in New York, said John Paul's figure will certainly be in the consciousness of the 115 cardinals choosing his successor because he made all but a handful of them cardinals.
"But I don't think it will directly influence the outcome," he said. "The large footprints he left create something of a job description, but they won't be looking for someone in his own image."
Nevertheless, John-Peter Pham, a former Vatican official and author of "Heirs of the Fisherman: Behind the Scenes of Papal Death and Succession," said the cardinals must be feeling the pressure from the public to pick someone similar to John Paul.
"In a way it weighs on them and perhaps deprives of them of the freedom to profile a different type of pope," he said.
"If this pressure existed when Pius XII died we would have never gotten John XXIII," the so-called "Good Pope" beloved by many Catholics, he said.
If the new pope does decides to speed up the waiting period, the person who would most likely initiate the process is Monsignor Gianfranco Bella, the judicial vicar in the ordinary tribunal of the diocese of Rome.
Since John Paul died in Rome, the diocese of Rome has jurisdiction over initiating his cause for beatification, said the Rev. Peter Gumpel, a Jesuit who has spearheaded several saintly causes.
Bella said Wednesday that no process has yet been initiated.
"The new pope, he must decide," he said in an interview. "There was a popular demonstration that was very beautiful, but it's for him to decide."