Priests attend the Mass for the beatification of Pope John Paul II in Saint… (Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters )
Reporting from Vatican City — Before hundreds of thousands of the Roman Catholic faithful, the late Pope John Paul II was beatified Sunday in a ceremony that declared him "blessed" and put the Polish pontiff one step closer to sainthood.
A packed St. Peter's Square erupted in applause when the current pope, Benedict XVI, recited the words that elevated his predecessor, whose massive portrait was then unveiled over the doorway of the basilica.
A choir broke into a chorus of "Amens" as some in the crowd wept. The French nun whose healing from Parkinson's disease was deemed a miracle performed by John Paul presented Benedict with a reliquary containing a vial of the late pope's blood, which will become an object of veneration.
Photos: Beatification of Pope John Paul II
The beatification, just six years after John Paul's death on April 2, 2005, was the fastest to happen after someone's death in modern times. The present pope waived the usual five-year waiting period before the lengthy canonization process is supposed to begin, a decision that some have criticized as hasty and political.
But the devotees who thronged the square and the streets leading into it dismissed such criticism, focusing instead on the positive legacy of a man who stood up to communism, traveled the world to renew the faith and survived a 1981 assassination attempt.
"He was admired as a saint when he was alive," said Beata Klepacka, 31, a doctor who came to Rome from London with her family to attend the beatification ceremony.
Rain and gray skies from the previous day gave way to sunshine Sunday morning as pilgrims from across the globe streamed into St. Peter's Square. Flags and banners marked out groups from as far away as South Africa and Brazil, the world's most populous Roman Catholic country.
Huge crowds built up in the streets around Vatican City as police closed off the square, which was already fully packed hours before the ceremonial Mass began at 10 a.m. Ambulances and rescue officials carried away those overcome by the heat or by the crush of people.
The large number of pilgrims was reminiscent of the big crowds that congregated in the square during John Paul's last days and for his funeral.
Benedict was garbed in the vestments of his popular and charismatic predecessor, whose papacy lasted 27 years. Flanking the pope on the basilica's portico were cardinals and other high-ranking members of the Vatican hierarchy. Several foreign heads of state also attended, including Robert Mugabe, the controversial president of Zimbabwe.
The highly anticipated ceremony is likely to provide a morale boost for the Catholic Church, which has been rocked in recent years by allegations of priestly sexual abuse. Various investigations have uncovered systematic abuse in Catholic institutions around the world, as well as efforts by some church officials to cover up what happened and shield perpetrators from criminal punishment.
One victims' rights group said it would spend Sunday distributing leaflets outside churches in seven countries asking congregants to pledge to report suspicions of abuse to civil authorities. Many abuse victims say John Paul did little to deal with the problem during his papacy and that his beatification adds insult to their injury.
Critics also condemn his close ties to Marcial Maciel Degollado, the Mexican founder of the powerful order Legionaries of Christ, who was discovered to have abused seminarians and fathered children.
Beatification is the last step before full sainthood. To achieve that status, John Paul must be determined by the Vatican to have performed another miracle besides the curing of the nun with Parkinson's disease.