VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II's funeral was barely underway when the cardinals seated near his casket got the first insistent message from the huge crowd below. "Santo Subito," said the 15-foot banner unfurled in St. Peter's Square.
Roughly translated from Italian, it means "Sainthood Now."
Soon an identical sign popped up farther back in the crowd, followed by several minutes of cheering, rhythmic applause and shouts of "Saint John Paul!" By the end of the Mass, seven such banners were visible from the outdoor altar, each bearing the same slogan of a grass-roots movement advocating the late Roman Catholic leader's swift sanctification.
"We all saw them," Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., said after the service. "The message was clear. The people think he was a saint."
Support for John Paul's canonization "is like a tidal wave," said Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit. "It's going to come."
Vatican officials cautioned Friday that their procedure for elevating the dead to saintly status was cumbersome and could last decades. Any shortcuts, they said, would require a decision by John Paul's successor, whom the cardinals expect to elect this month.
But in the meantime, a popular cult of sainthood is burgeoning just a week after the pope's death. Vendors in Rome, using the Polish pontiff's given name, are selling T-shirts proclaiming, "Saint Karol." Makeshift shrines have sprung up near St. Peter's, attracting handwritten notes referring in Christ-like terms to the pope's long battle against a host of infirmities.
"The people are way ahead of the church on this," Father Henri Guglielo, a parish priest from suburban Paris, said as he left the funeral Mass.
Friday's pro-sainthood demonstration showed some signs of organization and looked strongest in a section of Polish pilgrims. The "Santo Subito" banners were of identical size and lettering, varying only in color.
Yet the movement itself is broad and seems primarily spontaneous, reflecting the globe-trotting pontiff's contact with and enduring effect on millions during his 26-year reign.
"He is already a saint in our hearts," said Elena Ramos, a black-clad Filipina, as she filed out of the square Friday. "He always was."
Seven time zones away in Mexico, high school student Heron Badillo, 19, was up at 3 a.m. to watch the funeral on TV. He met John Paul 15 years ago when the pope landed in the city of Zacatecas and blessed the sickly boy during an airport ceremony.
In a telephone interview Friday from Zacatecas, Badillo said he strongly believed that the encounter cured him of leukemia after doctors had given up treating him. "I felt an instantaneous emotion and a new breath filling my entire body," he said, adding that he was now free of illness.
The Mexican Bishops Conference backs his testimony. Spokeswoman Marilu Esponda said the bishops planned to present it to the Vatican, along with medical records, as evidence of a miracle, even if that wasn't enough to put the pope on the road to canonization.
Candidates for sainthood must pass through two rigorous examinations of documents and eyewitness reports. The first leads to beatification, the second to canonization. Candidates must have proven reputations for holiness and "intercessionary" powers to deliver favors from God, as in a serious illness, to those who pray to them.
The opening of a formal case for beatification must wait at least five years after the candidate's death, according to the rules. But many Catholics would like to see that period abolished for John Paul, and some of those would rather that the next pope skip the examination stages and simply proclaim him a saint.
Father Peter Gumpel, a member of the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, said such a spur-of-the-moment proclamation was unprecedented in recent centuries and would be "imprudent."
Gumpel noted that Pope Paul VI squelched a similar movement in the 1960s to sanctify his predecessor, Pope John XXIII, right away. It took John until 2000 to achieve beatification.
Some canonization advocates accept that approach. "He is a saint to me now, so it doesn't matter to me what happens in the formal way," said Pole Maciej Czapiewski at the funeral. "Our pope doesn't want special treatment, and it might be seen as being wrongly done to make him a hero. This is not pop culture. The church is 2,000 years old."
In 1983, under John Paul's guidance, beatification and canonization were streamlined to let people become saints faster and to offer Catholics a larger, more diverse group of examples to follow. He canonized 482 people, more than his predecessors in the last four centuries combined, according to Vatican statistics.