ROME (AP) – Vatican officials no longer are dismissing outright the notion that Pope John Paul II could be declared a martyr, a step that could remove the need for a confirmed miracle to beatify the late pontiff and make it easier for him to become a saint.

Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, said Friday it was up to groups of theological experts to decide if the May 13, 1981, attempt on John Paul’s life – as well as his long, public suffering before he died – warranted a declaration of martyrdom.

“In a technical, theological, juridical and canonical sense, the martyr gives his life for the faith,” Saraiva Martins said in response to questions at a news conference, according to the Apcom news agency.

“We have to verify the motive for the attempt on the life of (Karol) Woytyla. And this will be the work of theologians.”

Ever since Pope Benedict XVI announced May 13 that he was putting John Paul on the fast track to be beatified, questions have swirled about whether he could be declared a martyr. Doing so would remove the need for the Vatican to confirm that a miracle attributed to his intercession had occurred after his April 2 death ­- a necessary step for beatification.

The Vatican would still need to confirm that a miracle occurred after his beatification for John Paul to be declared a saint.

Church officials had initially rejected outright any suggestion that the 1981 assassination attempt could be the basis for a martyrdom declaration since John Paul lived for almost another 24 years.

They also noted that other candidates for beatification and sainthood had also suffered ordinary illnesses at the end of their lives but were not declared martyrs.

John Paul suffered from Parkinson’s disease for many years. According to his death certificate, he died of blood poisoning and the collapse of his blood vessels after suffering from organ failure brought on by a urinary tract infection.

However, Cardinal Camillo Ruini appeared to have been setting the stage for a possible martyrdom declaration Tuesday when he formally opened the beatification cause for John Paul.

During his remarks at the end of the service, Ruini said there was a “decisive” link between John Paul and Jesus Christ based on blood.

“John Paul truly spilled his blood in St. Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981, and then again, not just his blood but he offered his life during the long years of his illness,” Ruini said.

“In the end, his suffering and his death, his silent blessing from his window at the end of Easter Mass, were for all of humanity an extraordinary and efficient testimony of Jesus Christ killed and resurrected, of the Christian significance of suffering, death and the force of salvation.

“The days of his funeral became for Rome and the world days of extraordinary unity, reconciliation and opening of the soul to God,” Ruini said.

John Paul beatified and canonized hundreds of martyrs during his 26-year papacy. In fact, of the 1,338 people he beatified, 1,032 were martyrs. Of the 482 people he elevated to sainthood, 480 were martyrs.

One of the people he canonized was Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who traded his life for that of a married man at Auschwitz in 1941. He was beatified under normal procedures in 1971. John Paul canonized him in 1982, announcing that he would be venerated as a martyr.

At the time some theologians questioned the move, since Kolbe didn’t strictly die for the church. Experts have raised similar questions concerning the case of John Paul, since some say the 1981 assassination attempt was provoked by John Paul’s support of the Solidarity labor movement battling the communist government in his native Poland. That would make the motive of the gunman political, rather than religious.

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