FILE PHOTO: Elderly Romanians look at a sculpture of France's former Foreign Minister Robert Schuman at a park in Bucharest, Romania on Europe Day, May 9, 2006 after the unveiling ceremony of a monument dedicated to key personalities involved in the creation of the European Union. REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel/File Photo
By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis on Saturday put 20th century statesman Robert Schuman, one of the founders of modern Europe, on the path to sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.
A Vatican statement said the pope approved a decree recognising the "heroic virtues" of Schuman, who died in 1963. The recognition is one of the earliest stages of the long process that can lead to canonisation.
Schuman's work was instrumental in the founding of today's European institutions, such as the European Union.
Schuman, who served as French prime minister and foreign minister in the immediate post-World War II period, also played a role in the founding of NATO.
In 1950 the "Schuman Plan" proposed a supranational community for coal and steel. It evolved to become the European Economic Community in 1957 and the European Union in 1993.
Along with Italy's Alcide de Gasperi, France's Jean Monnet and Germany's Konrad Adenauer, he is considered one of the "Fathers of Europe" for promoting democratic, supranational principles to thwart the possibility of another war on the continent.
A devout Catholic, Schuman's role in trying to break the cycle of wars in Europe has been praised by several popes.
Francis' approval of the decree means Schuman now has the title "venerable".
One miracle would have to be attributed to Schuman for him to be beatified and then another for him to be made a saint.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that only God performs miracles, but that saints who are believed to be with God in heaven intercede on behalf of people who pray to them. A miracle is usually the medically inexplicable healing of a person.
The France-based Institut Saint Benoît has been promoting sainthood for Schuman for several decades.
Its theologians and historians heard witnesses and examined all of his writing for documentation that was sent to the Vatican and that resulted in Saturday's decree.