Pope beatifies John Paul before 1 million faithful

NICOLE WINFIELD - Associated Press

Pope Benedict XVI has praised Pope John Paul II for having restored Christianity as a religion of hope, speaking during the beatification Mass of his beloved predecessor before more than a million faithful.

In his homily, Benedict said the Polish-born John Paul helped turn what appeared to be the "irreversible" tide of Marxism with his courage and faith and "helped believers throughout the world not to be afraid to be called Christian."

Benedict moved John Paul a step closer to possible sainthood in a Mass Sunday held under sunny skies and amid a sea of Poland's red and white flags — a scene reminiscent of John Paul's 2005 funeral.

The beatification, the fastest in modern times, is a morale boost for a church scarred by the sex abuse crisis.

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VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI beatified Pope John Paul II before more than a million faithful in St. Peter's Square and surrounding streets Sunday, moving the beloved former pontiff one step closer to possible sainthood.

The crowd erupted in cheers, tears and applause as an enormous photo of a smiling John Paul was unveiled over the loggia of St. Peter's Basilica and a choir launched into a hymn long associated with the Polish-born pope.

The beatification, the fastest in modern times, 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.

Speaking in Latin, Benedict pronounced John Paul "Blessed" shortly after the start of the Mass, held under sunny skies and amid a sea of Poland's red and white flags — a scene reminiscent of John Paul's 2005 funeral, when some 3 million people paid homage to the pope.

Benedict then received a silver reliquary holding a vial of blood taken from John Paul during his final hosptalization. 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.

Police placed wide swaths of Rome even miles (kilometers) from the Vatican off limits to private cars to ensure security for some of the estimated 16 heads of state, seven prime ministers and five members of European royal houses attending.

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 an EU travel ban to attend.

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.

"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."

Thousands of pilgrims, many of them from John Paul's native Poland, spent the night in sleeping bags on bridges and in piazzas around town, and then packed St. Peter's as soon as the barricades opened over an hour in advance because the crowds were too great.

They stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the main boulevard leading to the Vatican, Via della Conciliazione, as well as on side streets around it and the bridges crossing the Tiber leading to St. Peter's. Rome police headquarters put the number attending at over a million.

"John Paul was a wonderful man and it's a privilege to be here. It's wonderful to see people from all across the world," said Anne Honiball, 48, a nursing home administrator from Worthing, England who carried a small Union Jack flag.

"We missed the royal wedding but we are Catholics and this was a bit more important, I suppose," said Honibal, a former Protestant who converted to Catholicism 10 years ago.

It's the fastest beatification on record, coming just six years after John Paul died and beating out the beatification of Mother Teresa by a few days.

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" that erupted during John Paul's funeral.

On Saturday night, a "Santo Subito" banner was emblazoned on the side of the Circus Maximus field, where an all-night prayer vigil kicked off the beatification celebrations in earnest.

Many pilgrims spent the night moving around the center visiting eight churches that stayed open all night, a "white night" of prayer in honor of the late pope.

"The weather is mild and so it will not be a problem to pass the night here, and there is also a very nice atmosphere," said Pauline Rosenfeld, a 20-year-old pilgrim from Paris sitting with friends in her sleeping bag gearing up for a night spent outdoors.

The beatification is taking place despite a drumbeat of criticism about the record speed with which John Paul is being honored, and continued outrage about clerical abuse: Many of the crimes and cover-ups of priests who raped children occurred on John Paul's 27-year watch.

Vatican officials have insisted that John Paul deserves beatification despite the fallout from the 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 U.S. Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests have said the speedy beatification was just "rubbing more salt in these wounds" of victims.

Rome itself seemed invaded by Poles overjoyed that their native son was being honored. Special trains, planes and buses shuttled Poles in for the beatification.

Anna Fotyga, a former Polish foreign minister and member of Poland's parliament, arrived on a special train Sunday morning carrying the Polish parliamentary delegation. She reminisced about John Paul's impact on communist Poland in the late 1970s and 80s.

"I was a student at that time, and actually seeing him, listening to him started transformation in Poland, I am sure," she said.

In Krakow, where John Paul was archbishop, two TV screens at two different sites were set up to broadcast the beatification ceremony Sunday from Rome. Houses were decorated with Poland's white-and-red flags and the Vatican's white-and-yellow colors.


Associated Press writers Vanessa Gera and Daniela Petroff contributed.