The CNN BeliefBlog has a helpful discussion of sainthood in the Roman Catholic tradition:
Sainthood explained: Understanding John Paul II’s beatification
By John L. Allen, Jr., CNN Senior Vatican Analyst in CNN BeliefBlog
Rome (CNN) – The beatification of Pope John Paul II this Sunday will probably be the biggest event in Rome since his death in April 2005, with at least 300,000 people expected to turn out for the ceremony and more than 2 million to take part in beatification-related activities in Rome, including a vigil service on Saturday in Rome’s Circus Maximus and visits to John Paul’s tomb.
Beatification is the next-to-last step in the sainthood process. It means the candidate can be referred to as “blessed,” and that one miracle has been confirmed in his or her name. Another miracle is required for canonization, the formal act of declaring someone a saint.
Here are more questions and answers about the process – and about John Paul II:
What is a saint, and how many are there?
Catholics believe a saint is someone who lived a holy life and who’s already in heaven. Saints are considered role models for people still on earth, and are capable of interceding with God on someone’s behalf when a request for help is made in prayer.
The actual number of saints is impossible to calculate. One well-known work called “Lives of the Saints” lists 2,565 Catholic saints but that doesn’t count thousands of others celebrated in local regions all over the world. The Catholic Church has a feast, All Saints’ Day, on November 1 to honor the countless saints who aren’t formally canonized.