The late Pope John Paul II moved a major step closer to sainthood yesterday at a joyous ceremony that drew more than 1 million people, the largest crowd in Rome since his funeral six years ago.
“From now on, Pope John Paul shall be called ‘blessed,’” Pope Benedict XVI, 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.
To cheers from the huge crowd, a tapestry showing a smiling John Paul was unveiled seconds after Benedict read the proclamation.
St Peter’s Square was packed and the crowd stretched as far back as the Tiber River, more than 0.5km away. The throng of devotees had moved toward the Vatican since before dawn to get a good spot for the Mass.
Police estimated the crowd at more than 1 million people. Many camped out during the night in the square, which was bedecked with posters of the late pope and one of his most famous sayings, “Do not be afraid!”
In his homily, Benedict noted that the late Pope, whom he praised as having had “the strength of a titan” and who gave millions of people “the strength to believe,” had blessed crowds thousands of times from his window overlooking the same square.
“Bless us now,” Benedict said.
Many of the participants were from John Paul’s native Poland. Dozens of red and white Polish flags bobbed above the crowd and a cheer went up when a group of Poles released a large banner reading “Thank You, God,” held aloft by balloons.
“We were at the funeral and we just had to be here to see him beatified,” said Janusc Skibinski, 40, who drove 29 hours with his family from their home near the border with Belarus.
A place of honor was reserved for Sister Marie Simon-Pierre Normand, a French nun who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, but whose inexplicable cure has been attributed to John Paul’s intercession with God to perform a -miracle, thus providing the grounds for his beatification.
After the proclamation, Normand held up a silver reliquary with a vial of blood taken from the pope in the last few days of his life in case it was needed for a transfusion.
The Vatican will have to attribute another miracle to John Paul’s intercession after the beatification in order for him to be declared a saint.
The pope was beatified on the day the Church celebrates the Feast of Divine Mercy, which this year fell on May 1, coinciding with the most important workers’ holiday.
About 90 official delegations from around the world, including members of five European royal families and 16 heads of state, attended the beatification.
They included Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who has been widely criticized for human rights abuses in his country. Mugabe is banned from traveling to the EU, but the Vatican is not a member of the bloc.
Pope John Paul’s coffin was exhumed on Friday from the crypts below St Peter’s Basilica and will be placed in front of the main altar. It will remain there and the basilica will remain open until all visitors who want to view it have done so.
It will then be moved to a new crypt under an altar in a side chapel near Michelangelo’s statue of the Pieta.
John Paul’s beatification has set a new speed record for modern times, taking place six years and one month after his death on April 2, 2005. While the overwhelming majority of Catholics welcome it, a minority are opposed, with some saying it happened too fast.
Liberals in the church say John Paul was too harsh with theological dissenters who wanted to help the poor, particularly in Latin America.
Some say he should be held ultimately responsible for sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic church, because they occurred or came to light when he was in charge.