The death of Pope John Paul II two years ago brought an unprecedented public outpouring of grief, with the millions of pilgrims who thronged St Peter's Square for his funeral calling for him to be recognised immediately as a saint.

"Santo subito" - "make him a saint straight away" - was the message on the placards waved above the crowd.

His successor, Benedict XVI, appears to be sympathetic. He has waived a church rule that requires a five-year pause after an individual's death before the canonisation process can begin. In the exceptional case of Pope John Paul II, that period was just three months.

The first phase of the process was concluded on April 2, the second anniversary of the pope's death, at a solemn liturgical ceremony in the Basilica of St John the Lateran. Among those present was a 46-year-old French nun whose inexplicable cure from Parkinson's disease is likely to be recognised by the church as a miracle, paving the way for John Paul's beatification.

Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, who works in a maternity ward in a Paris hospital, says she was miraculously cured of her symptoms after praying for the intercession of the late pope.

"It has now been 10 months since any kind of treatment has been given," she said in a statement made available to the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which is responsible for the saint-making process. "I have resumed working normally, I have no difficulty in writing and I even drive the car for long distances. I feel as if I have been reborn."

Admirers of the Polish pontiff have been pressing for a rapid conclusion, bringing the church into line with the spontaneous perception of many Catholics.

For the young, after a 26-year pontificate, John Paul was the only pope they could remember. People around the globe had been touched by his charisma and communication skills.

Even some who disagreed with him were won over by the courage with which he bore his last illness, continuing his public mission despite suffering advanced Parkinson's disease.

"I think John Paul's canonisation is unstoppable, and can hardly be slowed down," said Farley Clinton, an American Vaticanologist. "John Paul will be, for historians, John Paul the Great. Being the Saint George who killed the international communist dragon is what will make him turn up in history books as The Great Pope."

But even the most enthusiastic now recognise the need for a thorough examination. Leading the canonisation charge has been his personal secretary, Archbishop Stanislao Dziwisz, but he too has recently sounded a note of caution. "Nothing must be rushed, so that no-one can accuse us afterwards of not having done things properly," Dziwisz said at the conclusion of the diocesan phase of the investigation, during which 130 people were interviewed.

"It will be a great joy for us when he is officially beatified, but as far as we are concerned he is already a saint," Dziwisz said.

Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the church official charged with promoting John Paul's beatification, has said there will be no more shortcuts on the road to sainthood. "Canon law must be respected and the church has her procedures," he warned recently.

So far only a small minority of Catholics have raised their voices to suggest that Karol Wojtyla should not be made a saint at all. Among them are priests and theologians from around the world, and the progressive Catholic organisation We Are Church, who wrote to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints last year to express reservations.

They questioned the late pope's charity, citing his public dressing down of Ernesto Cardenal, a Sandinista minister and priest in Nicaragua, and his crackdown on dissident theologians. They questioned his prudence in allowing free rein to conservative Catholic movements such as Opus Dei and his tolerance of authoritarian regimes in Latin America. And they questioned his humility, pointing to the spectacular aspect of his papacy, bordering on a personality cult.

Other critics cite the pope's imposition of secrecy on some of the gravest scandals of his reign: the Vatican bank's involvement in the financial shenanigans that led to the bankruptcy of the Banco Ambrosiano in 1982 and the scandal of sexual abuse by priests.

If Pope John Paul II is to advance beyond beatification - an intermediate stage on the path to sainthood that could be reached as early as next year - he will require a second certified miracle. That should not be a problem, as numerous miraculous cures allegedly obtained in his name have already been reported from around the world.

Pope Benedict is said to be personally in favour but nevertheless keen to put a brake on the popular enthusiasm for a "santo subito".

"The modern church has always been very prudent in beatifying popes," said Vaticanologist and author Giancarlo Zizola. "The papacy doesn't want to put its credibility at risk with halos handed out today and criticised tomorrow."

Philip Willan is the author of The Last Supper: The Mafia, The Masons And The Killing Of Roberto Calvi, published last week by Constable & Robinson.