POPE BENEDICT XVI beatified Pope John Paul II before more than a million faithful in St Peter’s Square and surrounding streets this morning, 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 hosptalisation. The relic, a key feature of beatification ceremonies, will be available for the faithful to venerate.
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.
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.
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.
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 US Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests have said the speedy beatification was just “rubbing more salt in these wounds” of victims.
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.