VATICAN CITY (AP) – The new pope placed John Paul II on an unprecedented fast track for sainthood Friday and named San Francisco’s archbishop to be the church’s guardian of doctrine – the highest Vatican office ever held by an American.

Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to waive the five-year waiting period for beatification procedures for John Paul came just six weeks after the pope’s death.

“And now I have a very joyous piece of news for you,” Benedict told a gathering of Roman priests at the Basilica of St. John Lateran before reading a letter in Latin announcing the move.

The announcement came on the 24th anniversary of the 1981 assassination attempt on John Paul in St. Peter’s Square by a Turkish gunman. The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano said the timing was an “eloquent” testimony to the late pope’s holiness.

The only other time the waiting period was waived was for Mother Teresa – a step taken by John Paul himself a year after her death in 1997. She was beatified in 2003.

In his other announcement Friday, Benedict tapped his old friend Archbishop William Levada to be prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, filling the job Benedict held for nearly 24 years.

The position, one of the most powerful at the Vatican, is responsible for ensuring the faithful follow church doctrine and for punishing those who don’t. Levada, 68, was expected to maintain the Vatican’s uncompromising opposition to abortion, euthanasia, ordaining women, homosexuality and lifting the celibacy requirement for priests.

In choosing Levada, Benedict selected a champion of church doctrine who has spoken out against same-sex marriages while leading the church in a city with a vibrant gay and lesbian community.

San Francisco archbishop since 1995, Levada has also dealt with the clergy sex abuse scandal that has convulsed the American church.

A major victims group, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called the appointment “insensitive” and unwise, noting that the chairman of a watchdog panel Levada formed to review claims against priests in San Francisco resigned last year in protest.

“Regarding abuse in the San Francisco Archdiocese, Levada has been slow to act, harsh to victims and committed to secrecy,” the group said Friday.

However, the Rev. Jim Bretzke, co-chair of the University of San Francisco’s theology department, described Levada as intelligent, careful and fair. “He has all the right credentials,” Bretzke said this week. “The conservatives respect him and even the liberals respect him.”

Levada will be the highest-ranking American ever at the Vatican, said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. American cardinals have headed important Vatican congregations in the past, but the Doctrine of the Faith is second only to the Vatican Secretary of State in the Roman Curia. An American has never held either top position before.

Levada has been a member of the congregation for five years. He is also chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ committee on doctrine and helped draft the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a guide to Catholic beliefs that was a major accomplishment of John Paul’s papacy.

He is also an expert on the authority of the pope and has been involved in promoting Episcopalian-Roman Catholic dialogue.

Benedict’s decision to put John Paul on a fast track was an answer to popular calls after his death, when pilgrims interrupted the pontiff’s April 8 funeral Mass with chants of “Santo! Santo!” and held up banners proclaiming “Santo Subito!” or “Sainthood Immediately!”

Friday’s announcement opens the way for a lengthy investigation into John Paul’s life. The Vatican must confirm one miracle attributed to his intercession for beatification and a second for sainthood – a process that will take years, Vatican officials said.

Monsignor Gianfranco Bella, the official responsible for starting the beatification cause, said Friday he hoped to start the investigation “as soon as possible.”

“But things have to be done well. They can’t be rushed through,” he said in an interview.

He called Benedict’s announcement “wonderful,” and suggested approving a miracle wouldn’t be too difficult.

“Certainly he had many gifts, and touched so many people,” he said. “Even the conversion of one person is a miracle.”

Following John Paul’s death, Italian newspapers were filled with reports of miracles attributed to him. But they all stemmed from inexplicable cures while he was alive. According to Vatican procedures, a miracle must have occurred after his death for it to be considered.

In Wadowice, Poland, where John Paul was born, the news was received with joy.

“If people here in Wadowice pray so much to John Paul II, that is a sign that for them he is in heaven. And being in heaven means being a saint,” said Father Jakub Gil, parish priest of Wadowice’s Basilica of Saint Mary, where the future pope was baptized.

Beatification is the first step toward canonization, and allows the candidate to be called “Blessed” and to be honored in a limited way in the liturgy. Canonization is an infallible declaration by the pope that a person who was virtuous to a heroic degree in life is now in heaven and worthy of honor and veneration as a saint.

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