Pope John Paul II, the Roman Catholic Church’s biggest saint-maker, was elevated within a step of sainthood himself in a beatification ceremony today led by his successor, Benedict XVI.
City authorities say more than 1 million pilgrims, tourists and Italians packed St. Peter’s Square and piazzas in central Rome to watch Benedict pronounce his Polish-born mentor worthy of veneration by the world’s billion Catholics by declaring him “blessed,” the penultimate step to sainthood.
“The expected day has arrived, it has arrived soon. Pope John Paul II is blessed,” Benedict said, interrupted by the applause of the pilgrims.
John Paul, history’s most traveled pontiff, is headed to become the fastest-made saint since popes took over the process around the year 1200. During his funeral in April 2005, mourners in Rome chanted “Santo Subito,” or “Sainthood Now,” for the pope who canonized 482 saints, more than all the other Roman pontiffs combined.
The Vatican heeded that call, waiving the traditional five-year waiting period before initiating the beatification process, the first time it was sped up since the Church began the procedure for Mother Teresa of Calcutta upon her death in 1997.
Flood of Visitors
About 1.1 million visitors were expected in Rome, a city of 2.8 million, as pilgrims add to the usual flow of tourists and music-lovers attending the annual May Day concert, according to the city’s website. The cost of security, transportation, clean-up, health care and other services was estimated at 3.5 million euros ($5 million), the city said.
“He was a holy man and he was always good with the whole world,” said Maria Clavero, a 15-year-old student in Madrid, Spain, who came by bus with 55 students from the school. The trip took more than 24 hours. “It was worth it,” she said.
Rome has dedicated three days to the proceedings, which started with a vigil last night at Circus Maximus, an ancient Roman amphitheatre. About 200,000 persons attented the ceremony, according to city authorities. Thousands of faithful today will stream into St. Peter’s Basilica to view a relic of the pope’s blood, taken shortly before his death.
The Holy See announced the beatification of John Paul in January, saying it confirmed that he cured a French nun from Parkinson’s disease, from which he also suffered in his last 12 years. The Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints must now certify a second miracle for him to be eligible for sainthood.
Benedict called John Paul an example for the faithful at a time when the church’s moral authority has been eroded by the priestly sex-abuse crisis. “Despite all our shame and mistakes, we shouldn’t forget that even today there exist illustrious examples of faith -- that even today, there are people who through their faith and love give hope to the world,” Benedict, referring to John Paul, said on April 20 at the Vatican.
Critics such as Barbara Blaine, founder and president of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, say the sex-abuse crisis erupted on John Paul’s watch and he did little to tackle it. “He repeatedly and effectively brought his unparalleled global influence to bear on other crucial issues, but ignored or promoted stunningly complicit church officials,” she said in response to e-mailed questions. The church “can avoid rubbing more salt into these wounds by slowing down their hasty drive to confer sainthood” on John Paul, she added.
Born Karol Wojtyla in 1920, John Paul became the first pope from Poland and first non-Italian pontiff in almost 500 years when he was elected in 1978. He denounced totalitarianism in his native land while promoting human rights. He also suffered an attempted assassination on May 13, 1981, when a Turkish man, Mehmet Ali Agca, shot him in St. Peter’s Square. The pope later forgave Agca, whose motives were never clear.
John Paul made his second of a record 104 papal trips abroad to Poland, calling for “victory of the moral order in this difficult epoch of our history” in a homily in Krakow on June 10, 1979. Lech Walesa, Poland’s first president after the fall of communism, and current President Bronislaw Komorowski are due to attend the beatification.
“He gave hope and strength to Poles at their darkest hour,” Andrea Riccardi, an Italian historian and biographer of John Paul, said in an April 15 video interview posted on the website of newspaper Repubblica. “He resuscitated the peoples of eastern Europe.”
About 35,000 Poles registered to attend the ceremony in Rome, with as many as 600 buses chartered from Poland, according to Father Piotr Studnicki, a priest who’s coordinating support for Polish pilgrims in the Italian capital. Many more may come without registering, he said, and thousands will mark the event in celebrations across Poland.