VATICAN CITY—He flew around the world as history’s most traveled pope. On Sunday, the world came to him.
In the fastest beatification in modern times, the late Pope John Paul II moved a major step closer to sainthood as Pope Benedict XVI pronounced him “Blessed,” paying tribute to him for showing “the strength of a titan” in defending Christianity.
John Paul was beatified in front of a cheering crowd of over a million faithful, which packed St. Peter’s Square and surrounding streets, the largest crowd in Rome since his funeral six years ago, police said.
The crowd in Rome and in capitals around the world erupted in cheers, tears and applause as an enormous photo of a young, smiling John Paul was unveiled over the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica and a choir launched into hymn long associated with the Polish-born pope.
The Vatican’s official daily described the grand ceremony—and the weekend of prayers that Benedict called “a feast of faith”—an “extraordinary event without precedent in the last 1,000 years of the Church’s history.”
“From now on, Pope John Paul shall be called ‘Blessed,’” Pope Benedict, wearing resplendent white and gold robes, solemnly proclaimed in Latin, establishing that his predecessor’s feast day would be Oct. 22, the day of the inauguration of John Paul’s history-making pontificate in 1978.
He remained a rock
“He restored to Christianity its true face as a religion of hope,” Benedict said in his homily.
Benedict also said that through John Paul’s faith, courage and strength—“the strength of a titan, a strength which came to him from God”—John Paul had turned back the seemingly “irreversible” tide of Marxism.
“He rightly reclaimed for Christianity that impulse of hope which had in some sense faltered before Marxism and the ideology of progress,” Benedict said.
On a personal note, the Pope said he himself had been inspired by his predecessor, particularly for his forbearance during years of ill health.
“His example of prayer continually impressed and edified me,” he said. “Then, too, there was his witness in suffering. The Lord gradually stripped him of everything, yet he remained a rock.”
The beatification is a morale boost for a church scarred by the sex abuse crisis, but it has also triggered a new wave of anger from victims because the scandal occurred under John Paul’s 27-year watch.
Others have been critical of the speeding-up of a procedure that usually takes decades if not centuries.
A second miracle attributed to John Paul’s intercession is needed for him to be canonized.
Police placed wide swaths of Rome, several kilometers from the Vatican, off-limits to private cars to ensure security for the estimated 16 heads of state, seven prime ministers and five members of European royal houses who came.
Spain’s Crown Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia, wearing a black lace mantilla, mingled with Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, Poland’s historic Solidarity leader and former President Lech Walesa and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who sidestepped a European Union travel ban to attend.
“He went all over the world,” said Bishop Jean Zerbo of Bamako, Mali, who came to Rome for the ceremony. “Today, we’re coming to him.”
During his papacy, John Paul traveled to 129 countries, logging more than a million kilometers.
Benedict put John Paul on the fast-track for possible sainthood when he dispensed with the traditional five-year waiting period and allowed the beatification process to begin weeks after his April 2, 2005, death. Benedict was responding to chants of “Santo Subito!” or “Sainthood Immediately” which erupted during John Paul’s funeral.
On Sunday, a group of pilgrims from Krakow affixed a banner to a fence outside the square that says “Santo Subito,” evidence that for many of the faithful, John Paul already is a saint.
Around the world, Catholics celebrated the beatification, jamming churches from Mexico to Australia to pray and watch broadcasts of the Rome Mass on television.
In John Paul’s native Poland, tens of thousands of people gathered in rain in a major sanctuary in Krakow and in Wadowice, where the late Pontiff was born in 1920 as Karol Wojtyla.
Speaking in Latin, Benedict pronounced John Paul “Blessed” shortly after the start of the Mass, held under bright blue skies and amid a sea of Poland’s red and white flags—a scene reminiscent of John Paul’s 2005 funeral, when some three million people paid homage to the late pope.
‘Fragrance of his sanctity’
Benedict recalled that day six years ago, saying the grief the world felt then was tempered by immense gratitude for his life and pontificate.
“Even then, we perceived the fragrance of his sanctity,” Benedict said, explaining the “reasonable haste” with which John Paul was being honored.
Police, government officials and the Vatican all put the figure of those attending the Mass at over a million; only a few hundred thousand could fit into St. Peter’s Square and the surrounding streets but others watched it on some of the 14 huge TV screens set up around town or listened to it on radios in Polish or Italian.
During the Mass, Benedict received a silver reliquary holding a vial of blood taken from John Paul during his final hospitalization.
The relic, a key feature of beatification ceremonies, will be available for the faithful to venerate.
It was presented to him by Sister Tobiana, the Polish nun who tended to John Paul throughout his pontificate, and Sister Marie Simone-Pierre of France, whose inexplicable recovery from Parkinson’s disease was decreed to be the miracle necessary for John Paul to be beatified.
John Paul’s coffin was exhumed on Friday from the crypts below St. Peter’s Basilica and was placed in front of the main altar. It will remain there until all visitors who want to view it have done so.
Benedict was the first to pay respect before the coffin, which had a bible placed on it, followed by cardinals, royalty and heads of state.
Helicopters flew overhead, police boats patrolled the nearby Tiber River and some 5,000 uniformed troops patrolled police barricades to ensure priests, official delegations and those with coveted VIP passes could get to their places.
John Paul’s beatification beat out the beatification of Mother Teresa by a few days.
Vatican officials have insisted that John Paul deserves beatification despite the fallout from the sex abuse scandal, saying the saint-making process isn’t a judgment of how he administered the Church but rather whether he lived a life of Christian virtue.
But victims’ groups, such as the US Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, have said the speedy beatification was just “rubbing more salt in these wounds” of victims. Reports from Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse