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The miracle worker

In early 2009, Jory Aebly was shot in the head, execution-style, by muggers on an Ohio street. Surgeons told his parents the wound was “non-survivable”. But Jory more than survived. He quickly arose from the bed.

"Jory is a miracle," beamed hospital chaplain Fr Art Snedeker at the time, choosing his words pointedly. The priest had placed rosary beads blessed by Pope John Paul II with the victim, and prayed to the late pontiff for the young man's deliverance. Jory Aebly's remarkable recovery is today being chalked up to John Paul II as a miracle from beyond the grave.

There are others. In 2009 an unnamed Polish boy is said to have risen from his wheelchair and walked after praying at John Paul's graveside. Spaniard Carlos Vazquez claims that in 2006 he was cured overnight of the wasting disease Crohn's after venerating a skullcap worn by the late Pope. A new book by Pole Aleksandra Zapotoczny numbers the miracles attributed to John Paul at 120, and counting.

But who's counting? And why?

The who is the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the judging panel that decides who's worthy of canonisation (joining the Canon of Saints).

The why is because there are two routes to sainthood.

One is to die a holy martyr (possess the 'fame of martyrdom'), while the other is to live a pristine life ('the fame of sanctity') and to perform at least two miracles.

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Miracles tend to take the form of cures. To qualify as miraculous, a cure should be sudden, complete, permanent and baffling to medical science.

To date, just one miracle has been certified by the Vatican judges as the authentic work of John Paul. However, that lone miracle has paved the way for the late Pope's beatification, which will draw thousands to Rome tomorrow, May Day.

Beatification is a sort of halfway house towards sainthood. On May 1, John Paul will be given the title Blessed confirming that he has entered Heaven and already wields the saintly influence to assist those who pray in his name.

The recipient of the miracle that has cleared the way for tomorrow's beatification is French nun Sister Marie Simon Pierre. She was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2001. She was convulsed with shaking to the point where she could barely function.

Two months after the Pope's death in 2005, she felt that her body had finally packed in and she asked to be allowed to step down from her duties. Refusing, her mother superior told her to write John Paul II on a slip of paper. It came out an illegible scrawl.

But that night a voice told her to "pick up your pen and write", and her handwriting was restored. She awoke the next day to experience 'a second birth'. Her bewildered neurologist confirmed that her ailment had vanished, and a local priestly investigator set the ball rolling towards beatification with his initial finding that the incident was miraculous.

"This is where science and faith meet," said the clerical sleuth Fr Luc Marie Lalanne, declaring that both realms must recognise it as a miracle.

But some uneasy observers in Catholic Church circles saw it as more a meeting of faith and politics.

There have been theological mutterings that Sister Marie was chosen above others with an equally good claim because her congregation, The Little Sisters of Catholic Motherhood, had close links to John Paul, and because it would strike a perfect chord for the Pope to cure Parkinson's, the disease he also suffered from.

There have been further internal mutterings that Pope Benedict has fast-tracked his predecessor for sainthood with unbecoming haste, in an effort to generate some feel-good publicity around a church racked by two decades of scandals.

During his papacy, John Paul beatified 1,340 people and canonised 483 saints, which was more than the total elevated in the previous 500 years. The globetrotting Pope was particularly prone to elevating individuals from countries he visited on his travels.

He was nicknamed The Saint Factory by some fellow clerics who judged him guilty of fast-tracking away from tradition.

John Paul famously speeded up the elevation of Mother Teresa by waiving the traditional five-year cooling off period between a person's death and the start of the canonisation process. She was beatified in 2003, just six years after her death and one year after the Vatican confirmed she had cured cancer in an Indian woman.

Pope Benedict has shown less enthusiasm for making saints than his predecessor, but he too has made a striking exception to the five-year breathing space. Shortly after his death, John Paul was put on the fast-track and his beatification tomorrow will overtake that of Mother Teresa, becoming the fastest on record.

5 mooted 'cures' of Pope John Paul II

Pre-2005: Crash victim, identified only as Jarek, reportedly awakens from a coma after John Paul II touches a photograph of the young man. (Pending)

2005: Sister Marie Simon Pierre claims she was cured of Parkinson's after writing John Paul's name. (Approved by Vatican)

2006: Spaniard Carlos Vazquez says he was cured of Crohn's after praying before a skullcap worn by John Paul. (Pending)

2009: Unnamed nine-year-old Polish cancer victim is said to have left his wheelchair and walked after praying at John Paul's grave. (Pending)

2009: Jory Aebly makes a seemingly complete recovery from gunshot to the head after chaplain gives him rosary beads blessed by John Paul. (Pending)

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