The massive and moving funeral of Pope John Paul II has provoked the first major controversy since the cardinals arrived in Rome to choose his successor. Citing the shouts and placards demanding "Santo subito" ("Saint soon"), Archbishop Edward Nowak declared to the Italian media last week that the emotional outpouring was a signal that "the people" recognized the late pope's holiness and wanted him declared a saint--immediately. Recalling that in the early church, saints were made by popular acclamation of the faithful, Nowak, who serves as secretary and acting head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, said that his department could assemble "sufficient documentation" on the pope's life and miracles to have him beatified (the step before canonization) when a Synod of Bishops meets in Rome next October. (No one--not even Mother Teresa--has ever been declared Blessed in so short a time.) But instead of igniting support for his proposal, Nowak, an intensely nationalistic Pole, unwittingly set off a firestorm of suspicion.

Most of the cardinal electors--all but three appointed by the late pope--probably believe John Paul II was a saint. But at one of their daily discussions, several of them questioned the demonstration that had erupted during the pope's funeral. The placards, they noticed, were uniformly produced, indicating that the demonstration had been organized ahead of time and was not spontaneous.

The difference is crucial. According to the rules governing canonization, the first requirement is that the deceased enjoy a genuine "reputation for holiness" among the faithful. The church then interprets this as the work of the Holy Spirit. But to be genuine, such a reputation must be manifested spontaneously--not organized. Though no evidence links the demonstration to Nowak's proposal, it looked as if the organizers--most likely a conservative lay group favored by the late pope--wanted to influence this week's papal conclave: if cardinal electors believed John Paul II were already nearing official sainthood, they might hesitate to pick a man who'd differ with his saintly predecessor's policies.

The Vatican has seen such postmortem maneuverings before. When Pope John XXIII died in 1963, he, too, was wildly praised in Rome and in the international press. Seeing this, a group of progressive bishops at Vatican Council II proposed that the council itself declare John a saint without a formal process--thereby reducing the chances that the bishops would produce conciliar texts contradicting John's hopes for renewal. That proposal failed. Jesuit Father Peter Gumpel, an esteemed veteran of the saints congregation who opposed the immediate canonization of John XXIII, denounced Nowak's proposal as "totally foolish and absurd." At most, he said, the next pope might assign the cause of John Paul II top priority; he could even waive the rule requiring a five-year wait before putting the process in motion. Whatever the next pope decides, the politics of this papal election have just begun.