Pope Benedict XVI has declared his predecessor John Paul II ‘venerable’, moving the long-serving Polish-born pope closer to sainthood.

The decree bestowing the title is the first step towards beatification and eventual sainthood for the charismatic Pole who headed the Roman Catholic Church for nearly three decades.

Pope Benedict launched the lengthy process, which can take decades if not centuries, just two months after the death in 2005 of John Paul II, whose funeral was marked by calls of ‘Santo Subito’ (Saint Now).

The final stage for beatification is providing evidence of a miracle, usually a medical cure with no scientific explanation which is reviewed by several commissions.

In John Paul II's case, the miracle under consideration, and subject to another papal decree, involves a French nun who was cured of Parkinson's disease in 2005.

Vatican watchers expect Benedict to approve the beatification, which could be celebrated next year, either on the April 2 anniversary of his death or in October on the anniversary of the start of John Paul II's papacy in 1978.

Meanwhile, Pope Benedict has put his controversial wartime predecessor Pope Pius XII, accused by Jews of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust, back on the road to Roman Catholic sainthood.

Jewish groups had asked the pope to freeze the process that could lead to eventual sainthood until more World War Two archives could be studied.

The pope approved a decree recognising Pius' ‘heroic virtues’, meaning he will have the title ‘venerable’. It puts Pius two steps away from eventual sainthood in the Church. First he must be beatified and then canonised.

Pope Benedict has come under great pressure from both Catholics and Jews side over the possible sainthood of Pius.

The Vatican's department that makes saints had submitted the heroic virtues decree to the pope in 2007 but he decided not to sign it immediately, opting instead for what the Vatican called a period of reflection.

Some Jews have accused Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, of not doing enough to help Jews, a charge his supporters and the Vatican deny.

The Vatican maintained that Pius worked quietly behind the scenes because direct interventions may have worsened the situation for both Jews and Catholics in Europe. Many Jews have rejected this position.

Jews have for years been calling on the Vatican to open the archives as soon as possible so they can be studied by scholars and had asked Pope Benedict to freeze the process that could make Pius a saint until all the archives can be examined.

Catholic supporters of Pius have been pushing him to speed up the process while most Jews believe that pushing Pius ahead on the road to sainthood would harm Catholic-Jewish relations.

The possible sainthood of Pius is one of several issues that have strained Catholic-Jewish relations. Benedict's decision to readmit to the Church a bishop who denied the extent of the Holocaust in January also strained ties.

Richard Williamson had said in an interview he believed there were no gas chambers and that no more than 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, rather than the 6 million accepted by most historians.