Pope Benedict XVI says he has opened the process that could lead to sainthood for his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

The pope set aside a church rule that normally requires a five-year waiting period before the procedure leading to sainthood can even begin.

The German-born pope announced to a meeting of Roman Catholic clergy in Rome Friday that "the cause for the beatification of John Paul II is open."

Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian to lead the Catholic church in more than four centuries, was hailed as a saint by crowds of mourners who filled St. Peter's Square in the Vatican after his death April 2. He was pontiff for more than 26 years and visited more Catholic communities around the world than all of his predecessors combined.

Pope Benedict XVI also chose an American archbishop - William Levada of San Francisco - as his successor in charge of the Vatican's powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Before he was elected pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed the Vatican's top doctrinal body for 24 years.

Some information for this report provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.