This picture taken on September 19, 1999 shows Pope John Paul II at a Mass… (Gabriel Bouys / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from London and Vatican City — The good news reached Maria Helena Pambo as she stood in line in St. Peter's Square to pray at the tomb of Pope John Paul II.
On a gloriously sunny afternoon, Pambo, 34, heard that the former pontiff is to be officially beatified this spring, barely six years after his death — the quickest anyone has been bestowed the honor in modern times. The Vatican announced Friday that his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, had approved the move.
"It's a day of joy and happiness," said Pambo, a nun from Peru. "I never met John Paul II, but now that I live in Rome, every two or three days when I have some time off, I come to pray at his tomb. I ask him for help."
Tens of thousands of her fellow devotees are expected to converge on the square May 1, the first Sunday after Easter, for the beatification ceremony. Replete with religious pomp and fervor, the event is expected to be a morale booster for an institution beleaguered by accusations of silence and duplicity in its handling of thousands of allegations of priestly abuse.
John Paul's elevation was set after Benedict certified the findings of a panel charged with verifying a miracle ascribed to the late pontiff, a prerequisite for beatification, which is an intermediate step toward sainthood.
Church-appointed investigators concluded that a French nun was miraculously cured of Parkinson's disease after praying to John Paul within weeks of his death on April 2, 2005. He had suffered from the same ailment.
The popular Polish-born pontiff is now one step closer to being declared a saint. To qualify for that, a second miracle must be determined to have occurred at his posthumous intervention.
He was launched on the road to sainthood much sooner than usual: The Vatican's rules decree that a person must be dead for at least five years before the process leading to canonization can begin.
But soon after John Paul's death, Benedict declared that he would waive the waiting period and initiate the process immediately, perhaps in response to the throngs of fervent followers who crowded St. Peter's Square for the pope's funeral, waving signs demanding, "Sainthood right now!"
Such a "fast track" to sainthood is unusual, but not unprecedented. In fact, John Paul did the same for Mother Teresa, who died in 1997 and was beatified in 2003. His own elevation will beat out hers for the title of quickest by a matter of days.
Marco Tosatti, a veteran Vatican-watcher, said the public outpouring of adulation for John Paul almost certainly had an effect on Benedict's decision, aside from any personal reverence he might feel toward his predecessor.
"If the Vatican had said 'No, we don't have enough reasons to say he's a saint,' Catholic people would consider him a saint in spite of it. They don't need the Vatican seal of approval," said Tosatti, who writes for the Italian newspaper La Stampa. "The people considered him a saint even when he was still alive."
For millions around the world, the late pope was an inspiring figure because of his unwavering opposition to communism during the Cold War, his resilience after being seriously wounded in a 1981 assassination attempt and a common touch that endeared him to devotees during his frequent trips around the world to promote his church.
But there are critics, too, who note his rigid stance in opposing female priests, contraception and gay rights, and the fact that many of the cases of sexual molestation and physical abuse of minors by priests, nuns and other Catholic workers occurred during his 27-year papacy.
"The church hierarchy can avoid rubbing more salt into these wounds by slowing down their hasty drive to confer sainthood on the pontiff under whose reign most of the widely documented clergy sex crimes and cover-ups took place," Barbara Dorris, spokeswoman for a victims rights group, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said in a statement from St. Louis. "We urge Vatican officials to move cautiously in their haste to honor Pope John Paul II."
Last year, some Vatican officials reportedly had doubts about the diagnosis and healing of the Parkinson's disease that afflicted Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, a nun who works in a hospital in Arles, France. She had told church authorities that after other nuns had prayed to John Paul for her and after she herself had written down his name on a piece of paper, she awoke one morning in June 2005 free of the disabling symptoms that had made normal life impossible.
But the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints said Friday that their medical investigators had scrutinized the case carefully and concluded that the nun's recovery from the degenerative disease had no scientific explanation, in other words, that the miracle was genuine.
Interviewed Friday by French and Italian television, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre said John Paul "hasn't left me; he won't leave me until the end of my life."