VATICAN CITY--Pope John Paul II cleared the way Thursday for Katharine Drexel, a Philadelphia heiress who ministered to Native and African-Americans, to become a saint and John XXIII, the most beloved pope of the 20th century, to be declared blessed during Holy Year 2000 celebrations.

The Roman Catholic pontiff also approved the beatifications of the Rev. Francis Xavier Seelos, a German-born priest who worked among German immigrants to the United States in the 19th century, and seven other candidates for possible sainthood. Beatification is the penultimate step before canonization.

Drexel, who founded the still-active religious order of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in 1891, will be the United States' fifth saint and only the second born in the country.

Her rise to sainthood was unusually rapid, coming only 45 years after her death in 1955 and only 36 years after Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia introduced her cause for canonization in 1964. She was beatified in 1988.

John XXIII, known in Italy as "il papa buono" (the good pope), reigned only from 1958 to 1963 but was loved for his warm personality and admired for calling the Second Vatican Council to reform and renew the church. Following his death during the first session of Vatican II, many bishops attending the council proposed that he be proclaimed a saint by acclamation, but Pope Paul VI, his successor, preferred the normal procedure and opened his cause in 1965.

At Thursday's ceremony, Archbishop Jose Saraiva Martins, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints "promulgated," or declared, the congregation's decree in each of the 10 causes in the presence of Pope John Paul II, who then signed them.

The church believes saints ascend to heaven and can intercede with God in behalf of the living.

The process of canonization starts with establishing that the candidate lived a life of "heroic virtues" worthy of veneration. To become blessed, a candidate must either have died a martyr or be held responsible for a miracle that cannot be explained according to the laws of science. A second miracle is required for canonization.

Born in 1858, Drexel was the debutante daughter of an international banker but turned her back on society to become a nun. She invested her fortune of some $20 million in schools, missions and other services for Native and African-Americans and established America's first black college, now Xavier University in New Orleans.

In reporting to John Paul on his congregation's findings in her cause, Saraiva Martins said Drexel was for her time an "authentic pioneer of human rights." Her order continues her work in 48 ministry sites in 12 states and Haiti.

Drexel is credited with restoring the hearing of two deaf children.

The second miracle, certified by a Vatican medical board Oct. 7, was the cure of an unidentified 17-month-old child born in 1992 with nerve deafness.

Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton of Baltimore was America's first native-born saint. The other American saints are Mother Frances Cabrini of Chicago, Bishop John Neumann of Philadelphia and Sister Rose Philippine Duchesne of St. Charles, Mo.

The pope will conduct two canonization Masses in St. Peter's Square during Holy Year, on May 21 and Oct. 1.

John XXIII's cause advanced when doctors ruled Jan. 23 that in 1966 he had miraculously cured a young postulate, Caterina Capitani, 24, who was dying in a Naples hospital from "a hemorrhaging gastric perforation with external fistulization and acute peritonitis."

She had been allowed to take her final vows as a nun and received the church's last rites when her fellow nuns began praying to John XXIII and placed his photograph on her wound. The pope appeared to her in a vision and, according to testimony, doctors discovered five days after they had given her up for dead that she was fully recovered without even a scar.

Capitani, now 58, works as a head nurse in the Hospital of San Giovanni di Dio in the Sicilian city of Agrigento.

Despite his wide popularity and a total of 15 miracles attributed to him, John XXIII's cause met with some opposition on the grounds he had been too friendly to communists and the Orthodox churches and had enjoyed food and drink too much.

It took prodding from John Paul II to speed up the process so that his predecessor could be beatified in the year that the church is celebrating its Jubilee Holy Year of 2000 and the start of the third millennium of Christianity.

The congregation certified both Seelos' heroic virtues and his miracle in Thursday's decrees. A Redemptorist priest who went to the United States from Fussen in Bavaria in 1843, he worked among fellow immigrants in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Detroit and New Orleans where he died of yellow fever in 1867.

His cause had languished since the turn of the century, but his order revived it in the 1960s. In 1966, Angela Boudreaux of suburban New Orleans reported that after doctors gave her only two weeks to live, her prayers to Seelos and those of her family brought about her recovery from a fast-growing, inoperable liver cancer.

Boudreau, now 70 and in good health, said she would attend the Mass in St. Peter's Square on April 9 in which the pope will beatify Seelos.

John XXIII is expected to be beatified on Sept. 3 along with Pope Pius IX, who was overthrown as ruler of the papal states of central Italy in 1870 by the forces that unified Italy.

The congregation also certified the martyrdoms of a Thai priest, a Vietnamese teacher of the catechism and a Filippino catechist killed in Guam and the miracles of an Irish priest, who ministered in Belgium, a Malese priest and the founders of Indian and a Swedish orders of nuns.

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