By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis has put a 19th century English Catholic priest who was a distant relative of Britain's Prince William on the path to sainthood.
The Vatican said on Saturday that the pope had approved a decree recognizing the "heroic virtues" of George Spencer, a priest of the Passionist religious order who lived from 1799 to 1864.
Spencer, who left the Anglican Church, took the name "Ignatius of St. Paul" after he became a Catholic priest.
Prince William and his brother Prince Harry are related to Spencer through their mother Diana Spencer, the late Princess of Wales, who died in 1997.
Spencer was Diana's great-great-great-uncle, and also a great-uncle of Britain's wartime leader Winston Churchill, according to the website of the Roman Catholic diocese of Shrewsbury.
He grew up on the Spencer ancestral estate in Althorp where Diana is buried.
After his ordination in Rome, he returned to England and ministered to poor Irish migrants in the West Midlands.
The Passionist religious order in Britain has been working on his sainthood cause for decades, investigating his life and writings.
The pope's approval of the decree means Spencer now has the title "venerable".
His sainthood cause is still at the early stages. One miracle would have to be attributed to Spencer for him to be beatified and 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.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Jan Harvey)