Half a world away, inside the Vatican, yet another enormous box arrived filled with petitions asking Pope John Paul II to exercise his absolute power to proclaim a new and highly debated dogma: that the Virgin Mary is a co-redeemer with Jesus and cooperates fully with her son in the redemption of mankind.
Mr. Miravalle, 41, began the petition drive four years ago from his obscure position as a professor of Mariology -- the study of Mary -- at one of the most conservative Catholic universities in the nation. Since then the pope has received more than six million signatures from 148 countries on petitions asking him to give the Virgin Mary the ultimate promotion.
In addition to ordinary Catholics, Mr. Miravalle has received support from 550 bishops and 42 cardinals, including Cardinal John O'Connor and Mother Teresa before their deaths. Along the way his movement has laid bare a deep-seated conflict between wildly popular devotion to the Virgin Mary and the efforts of the established church to keep that devotion in check.
If Mr. Miravalle's campaign succeeds and John Paul II proclaims the Virgin Mary as a co-redeemer, she would be a vastly more powerful figure, something close to a fourth member of the Holy Trinity and the primary female face through which Christians experience the divine. Specifically, Roman Catholics would be required to accept three new spiritual truths: that Mary is co-redemptrix, as the pope terms it, and participates in people's redemption; that Mary is mediatrix and has the power to grant all graces; and that Mary is ''the advocate for the people of God,'' in Mr. Miravalle's words, and has the authority to influence God's judgments. For the millions of Virgin Mary devotees who have signed Mr. Miravalle's petitions, these beliefs are already woven into their daily spiritual lives."