Priests attend the Mass for the beatification of Pope John Paul II in Saint… (Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters )
Reporting from Vatican City — To the vast assembled faithful, it was a statement of the obvious: Pope John Paul II is now one of the "blessed."
But that didn't stop the crowds from weeping and clapping in an outpouring of emotion Sunday when the late pontiff's successor, Benedict XVI, made the description official during a ceremony in St. Peter's Square. As a giant portrait of John Paul was unveiled above him, Benedict declared the Polish-born pope beatified, worthy of veneration and one step away from full sainthood.
It was the Roman Catholic Church's fastest beatification in modern times — just six years after John Paul died and a few days ahead of the record set by Mother Teresa.
More than a million pilgrims from across the globe were on hand to witness the event. Though criticized by some as too hasty, John Paul's elevation came late, not early, in the view of many devotees, who revere him as a charismatic leader who stood up to communism, traveled the world to renew the faith and survived a 1981 assassination attempt in the same square where he was beatified.
"He was admired as a saint when he was alive," said Beata Klepacka, 31, a physician of Polish descent who was here with her family from London. "I think John Paul II is probably the most important person in the last century."
Whether or not that's true, it will now literally take a miracle for the man born Karol Wojtyla to become a saint. The church's rules on such matters say that a second miraculous event must be attributed to John Paul for him to qualify for sainthood, beyond the first one that made him eligible for beatification.
The woman at the center of that first declared miracle was present at Sunday's ceremonial Mass. Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, a French nun who said she was suddenly cured of Parkinson's disease through John Paul's intercession not long after his death, was chosen to present Benedict with a reliquary containing a vial of the late pope's blood, which is set to become an object of veneration.
In a homily delivered from the loggia of the great basilica, Benedict credited John Paul with restoring Christianity's "true face as a religion of hope" in his fight against godless Marxism, especially in his homeland. Polish flags fluttered among the crowds.
When he died April 2, 2005, "even then we perceived the fragrance of his sanctity," said Benedict, who served as his predecessor's chief doctrinal enforcer.
At John Paul's funeral, which brought even more people to Vatican City than Sunday's service, his ardent followers held aloft banners that urged "santo subito," or "sainthood right now," for the man whose papacy spanned 27 years. Benedict bowed to that request by waiving the five-year waiting period before the canonization process normally begins, a decision he said Sunday was justified by the obvious holiness of John Paul's life.
But critics within the church have questioned the rush to sanctify him, arguing for more time to examine his legacy. They point to his intolerance of theological dissent, particularly among left-wing priests in Latin America who advocated more radical action in behalf of the poor. Many such clerics were disciplined or silenced.
Perhaps more damaging is criticism that he did little to curb or expose sexual abuse within the church and its institutions, an ongoing scandal that has rocked the Vatican to its foundations.
Various outside investigations have concluded that the church hierarchy systematically hushed up allegations of abuse in such countries as Ireland, often shielding suspected child molesters from criminal prosecution. John Paul also maintained close ties with Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the influential order Legion of Christ, who was later discovered to have fathered children and abused a number of seminarians.
Victim support groups have called John Paul II's beatification an insult added to their injury. One organization planned to spend Sunday passing out leaflets outside churches in seven countries asking congregants to pledge to report suspicions of abuse to civil authorities.
But Damian Ezeani, a priest from southeastern Nigeria, dismissed what he called "a campaign of calumny" against Catholicism.
"The church grows stronger through persecution. It's media persecution," said Ezeani, 35.
He and some of his compatriots came to the beatification ceremony dressed in blue caftans stamped with medallions bearing John Paul's image. But like hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, Ezeani's group was unable to enter St. Peter's Square, which was packed long before the ceremony began at 10 a.m.
Huge crowds thronged the side streets, where large screens were set up to broadcast the proceedings. Warm sunshine beat down, replacing the chilly rain of the previous day.
Flags inside and outside the square marked out groups as coming from as far away as South Africa and Brazil, the world's most populous Catholic country.