When the beatification process for the late Pope John Paul II entered its fourth year this summer, there were excited predictions in his homeland that a date for the ceremony could be announced soon.

But Church leaders are urging caution.

Although the desire to see the late beloved pontiff declared blessed is understandable, they warn, procedures must be applied, and the process shouldn't be rushed.

"Let's remember the beatification will merely confirm what we're already convinced of -- the sanctity of our pope," Father Janusz Maczka, a philosophy professor at the Papal Theology Academy in Pope John Paul II's former Krakow archdiocese, told Our Sunday Visitor.

"Waiting for this should allow his cult to develop and deepen," he said. "There's no point trying to establish timetables which are not up to us."

When the beatification tribunal was inaugurated on June 29, 2005, by Rome's vicar general, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, less than three months after the pope's death, the ceremony was covered live on Poland's state television and seen as a popular gesture to Polish Catholics, who'd flocked to Rome in the hundreds of thousands for the funeral.

It also fueled expectations of a high tempo, record-breaking process.

A total of 563 Catholics were beatified in 20 separate ceremonies in the first three years of Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate, mostly martyrs from the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War, while 14 others were canonized as saints.

For many Poles, it has seemed obvious that Pope John Paul II should quickly be counted among them.

'Santo Subito'

Polish clergy have featured prominently in the process itself, led by its chief postulator, Msgr. Stanislaw Oder, and vice postulator, Msgr. Zdzislaw Kijas. They make up four of the six members of the Rome tribunal's historical team, and are prominently represented in the Vatican's Congregation for Saints' Causes, which will steer the process to its conclusion.

In Poland itself, the Wadowice-born pontiff holds honorary citizenship in dozens of towns, and has given his name to 750 schools nationwide and a similar number of city streets and squares. Not surprisingly, the process is viewed as a national cause, an expression and an acknowledgement of the intensity of popular Catholic devotions.

In late 2005, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope's former secretary, assured Italy's Avvenire newspaper the beatification needed "only official confirmation" by Pope Benedict XVI and could take place within six months during the new pope's May 2006 visit to Poland.

"We have fresh memories of the unnumbered crowds from the whole world who came to Rome and waited for hours before St. Peter's Basilica to honor the deceased Holy Father," the archbishop told a sainthood tribunal's opening Mass. "We also recall on the day of his funeral the great appeal of those gathered in St. Peter's Square -- 'Santo Subito!' (Sainthood Immediately!)"

A Polish tribunal also spent five months gathering testimonies of personalities ranging from former Solidarity union leader Lech Walesa to communist Poland's military strongman, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski.

Various dates for a beatification announcement have been suggested, with the latest being the 30th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's election this October, or the fourth anniversary of his death in April 2009.

Impeding the process

Some Polish Catholics have gone even further.

Msgr. Tadeusz Pieronek, a former Polish Bishops Conference secretary general, who chaired the Krakow tribunal, has insisted the late pope could be declared a saint immediately, without a preliminary beatification.

"[Pope] John Paul II is known throughout the world," Bishop Pieronek told Poland's Catholic information agency, KAI. "Though bypassing beatification hasn't happened before, the Polish pope is a figure for whom [Pope] Benedict XVI could decide to suspend the usual rules."

Others have urged caution.

"I understand those people who cried 'Santo Subito!' but the procedures for the beatification process should be respected," said Jesuit Father Waclaw Oszajca, editor of Poland's Przeglad Powszechny Catholic monthly.

"If an accelerated beatification were to flatter our national pride and send us back in the direction of applauding and serenading the pope instead of listening to him, I'd prefer it to happen later," Oszajca said.

In December 2005, one group of mostly Spanish and Italian theologians attempted to impede the beatification process by criticizing Pope John Paul's "negative policies" in areas from sex to Church governance, and urging those with doubts about his sanctity to make them known to the Rome tribunal.

Though public objections like these have been few, Vatican officials have also been wary about encouraging hopes of a fast track to sainthood.

Further work

In April, when Msgr. Oder announced the completion of a 2,500-page positio, summarizing documents and testimonies about the late pope's heroic virtues, he cautioned that the Vatican congregation still had to indicate which themes needed further "clarification and work."

"I've said many times that the Polish pope's beatification shouldn't be limited to some great spiritual event, or even worse a media event," the Rome-based postulator told his country's KAI agency. "It isn't a question of putting up monuments all over Poland, which have already spread like mushrooms after rain. What's important is to build a living monument, formed from the life of the nation."

Under a February instruction, Sanctorum Mater, the congregation's Portuguese prefect, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, codified the norms involved in beatification and canonization causes and urged local dioceses to ensure they were "applied with ever greater care."

Some processes had been conducted, the document warned, without a proper understanding of the rules and the "necessary meticulousness," while there had also been problems in establishing the required miracles.

In a late June interview with Italy's La Stampa daily, the congregation's secretary, Archbishop Michele Di Ruberto, confirmed that no dates had been considered for Pope John Paul II's beatification, or even for completing his process, which could still last years.

Papal paraphernalia

This seems unlikely to deflate the enthusiasm of some Polish Catholics.

A church of "the Blessed John Paul II" is already being built at the southern Zakopane mountain resort where the late pontiff often skied, while in March a lavish book, "Miracles of John Paul II," was published by Krakow's St. Stanislaw publishers, detailing more than 150 alleged cases of healing and conversion attributed to him.

Papal objects and memorabilia were already a booming business in Poland in the last years of Pope John Paul's life, with signed letters, cards and books fetching high prices. This has since expanded, with liturgical vestments and other artifacts associated with the pontiff in growing demand.

In March, when Italian newspapers claimed preparations were underway to transfer the pope's remains to a glass case in St Peter's basilica, there was media speculation in his homeland that his heart could be removed and reburied in Krakow's Wawel Cathedral.

Msgr. Pieronek, former bishops conference secretary general, says he counts on the late pope to be proclaimed blessed soon.

"No one from the congregation has a right to say anything about dates, only about procedural matters," the bishop, who once worked as an assistant to then-Bishop Wojtyla, told Poland's Rzeczpospolita daily in June. "But we have a right to hope for a rapid beatification. I count on this being announced for 2009 -- and if 2009 passes by, I'll be talking about the year after."

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.