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Last Updated: Saturday, 11 November 2006, 12:41 GMT
'Smiling pope' set for sainthood
By David Willey
BBC News, Rome

Pope John Paul I
John Paul I died suddenly at the age of 66
The first official steps towards making the late Pope John Paul I - who reigned for only 33 days - a saint of the Roman Catholic church, are near completion.

The initial process ends this weekend in the northern town of Belluno.

Papa Luciani, as the Italians still call him, or 'the smiling Pope', as many remember him, died in 1978.

After one of the briefest papal reigns in history, his many surviving admirers feel that his saintly qualities should be officially recognised.

"For me," Pope John Paul I said, "civic, social and political freedom coincides exactly with the message of Jesus Christ."

No one knows what direction his papacy would have taken had his life not been cut short by a sudden heart attack.

'Saint factory'

In 2003, the local bishop in the town of Belluno near Venice, where John Paul I was born and spent most of his life as priest and then bishop, kick-started the formal investigation.

Nearly 200 witnesses have so far given evidence, with reports now being handed over ceremonially to Rome for further study.

The process of creating new blesseds and saints of the Catholic church can take decades, even centuries.

Papa Luciani's successor, Pope John Paul II, created more new saints and blesseds than any of his predecessors and there is something of a logjam in the Vatican department known here colloquially as the saint factory.

John Paul II is himself already on the first track to sainthood.

Success demands the official recognition of at least one miracle, such as a medical cure inexplicable by ordinary science.

And that can be a stumbling block in this ancient and complicated process of saint-making in the Vatican.

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