ROME - The Roman Catholic Church placed Pope John Paul II on the path to sainthood Tuesday during a joyous ceremony at a Roman basilica - the fastest start to a beatification process in memory for a man many considered a saint long before he died.
Cardinal Camillo Ruini, John Paul's vicar for Rome, presided over the Latin-filled ritual launching the beatification "cause" at the Basilica of St. John Lateran.
During the ceremony attended by cardinals, archbishops and other faithful, key officials sat at a table set up on the altar, standing to recite an oath to keep their work secret and to refuse any gifts that might corrupt the process.
The faithful remained silent during the oaths, and some in the crowd wept. But once the cause was declared officially open, applause rang out, Polish and Vatican flags fluttered in the pews and there were chants of "Giovanni Paolo" and "Santo Subito!" or "Sainthood Immediately!"
Ruini was interrupted repeatedly by applause as he read a lengthy testimony to John Paul, tracing his life from his birth in 1920, through his years as a priest and bishop in communist Poland to his globe-trotting papacy.
"Any words that I can now add ... seem superfluous, so great and universal is the knowledge of him and so profound and unanimous the conviction of his saintliness," Ruini said. "We ask the Lord, with all our heart, that the cause of beatification and canonization that has begun this evening reaches its completion very soon."
Pope Benedict XVI announced May 13 that he was waiving the five-year waiting period and allowing the church's saint-making process to begin immediately for the Polish-born John Paul, who died April 2 after nearly 27 years guiding the church.
It was only the second time in recent history that such a waiver had been granted: John Paul placed Mother Teresa on the fast-track for sainthood in 1998. But her cause didn't begin until a year after her death, and although she was beatified in 2003, she is not yet a saint.
In placing John Paul on a fast track, Benedict was responding to the outpouring of calls for him to be canonized - including chants of "Santo Subito!" that erupted during John Paul's April 8 funeral Mass.
Church officials have said the process will take its regular course, with the investigation into the pope's life and writings, interviews with key witnesses and investigation of any possible miracles attributed to his intercession. One miracle must be verified for him to be beatified; a second for him to be made a saint.
Key clerics, however, have not dismissed speculation that the case might proceed at an unusually quick clip.
"We are working at a regular pace," the cleric spearheading the cause, Polish Monsignor Slawomir Oder, told Poland's TVN24 television. "But the pope is free to take his own decisions and it is not impossible that he may surprise us."
John Paul's longtime private secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, said he hoped Benedict would announce that John Paul had been made a saint when the pope attends the church's World Youth Day this August in Germany.
Dziwisz conceded in an interview with the Polish Press Agency that "the chances of that happening are close to zero." But he added: "The world already canonized John Paul II, we are now only waiting for the final confirmation of this fact."
That was the sentiment among many of the faithful who gathered Tuesday evening at St. John Lateran for the hymn-filled vespers service to open John Paul's cause. The process was beginning at Rome's cathedral because the first phase of the investigation lies with the Diocese of Rome.
"If it were up to the people, he would be a saint immediately, but you need to respect all the laws of the church," said Marco Iacomino, a 33-year-old seminarian from Brescia. "He's a saint because he lived like a Christian needs to live, like a man needs to live. He didn't only say it, but he lived it."
During the ceremony, Oder, the postulator, handed over the list of witnesses who will testify to John Paul's saintliness - a number that he said last week was "more than a few dozen." The promoter of justice for the cause, who used to be referred to as the "devil's advocate," also presented the list of questions for the witnesses.
The promoter of justice, the Rev. Giuseppe D'Alonzo, said Monday that he would remain objective, investigating any doubts or weaknesses that might arise. But he hinted that he thought John Paul deserved beatification.
The Diocese of Rome has made no attempts to hide its desire for the case to proceed, reporting that more than 20,000 people had visited the official Web site for the cause, and that 100 e-mails a day were arriving testifying to John Paul's virtues. Most of the messages came from Latin America, followed by Europe.
Once the material is gathered, the Diocese of Rome turns the case over to the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which appoints commissions to review the case and make a final report to the pope, who must decide if John Paul lived in a "heroic" way.
If the Vatican then confirms a miracle has occurred after John Paul's death thanks to his intercession, he can be beatified. Oder said he had already received reports of a possible miracle that warranted further investigation.