Video: 'Blessed' John Paul one step from sainthood
1.5 million people flock to Vatican for ceremony
The late Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Church's biggest saint-maker, was elevated within a step of sainthood himself in a three-hour beatification ceremony yesterday.
About 1.5 million people flocked to St Peter's Square to watch Pope Benedict XVI declare his Polish predecessor "blessed" in a display of religious pomp watched on television and the internet by millions around the world.
It was the biggest event hosted by the Vatican since two million people attended John Paul's funeral six years ago.
"From now on Pope John Paul shall be called blessed," Pope Benedict, wearing white and gold robes, proclaimed in Latin, establishing that his predecessor's feast day would be October 22, the day of the inauguration of John Paul's pontificate in 1978.
To the cheers of the crowd, a tapestry showing a smiling John Paul was unveiled after Pope Benedict read the proclamation.
Pope Benedict approved the beatification, the fastest in modern times, after Vatican experts ruled that the "miraculous" recovery of a French nun from Parkinson's disease was attributable to John Paul's intercession from beyond the grave.
A place of honour was reserved at yesterday's ceremony for the nun, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre Normand.
After the proclamation, Sister Normand held up a silver reliquary with a vial of blood taken from the pope in the last few days of his life in case it was needed for a transfusion. The vial will remain in the Vatican and become an object of veneration for the faithful.
The search is on for a second miracle that, after scrutiny by doctors and Vatican theologians, would enable the Polish pontiff to be canonised.
John Paul's millions of admirers remember him for his charisma, his survival of an assassination attempt in 1981 and his pivotal role in challenging communism during the Cold War.
In an apparent reference to his defiance of communist regimes and his support for the Polish Solidarity movement, Pope Benedict said his predecessor "turned back with the strength of a titan . . . a tide that appeared irreversible".
John Paul was beatified on the day the church celebrates the Feast of Divine Mercy, which this year fell on May 1, coinciding with the most important workers' holiday in the communist world.
The timing was ironic, given the role of the Polish pope in the fall of communism in his homeland and across eastern Europe.
Former Polish president Lech Walesa, the Solidarity union leader who was jailed by the communists, was present.
The ceremony was attended by cardinals, the representatives of five royal families and 16 heads of state.
They included Robert Mugabe, the leader of Zimbabwe, who despite being subject to international travel bans was given special permission by the EU to fly to Rome to attend.
A Vatican spokesman said Mr Mugabe could not be prevented from attending the ceremony because the Holy See had diplomatic relations with Zimbabwe.
The beatification was seen as an opportunity to repair the church's image and raise morale among believers.
Pilgrims from around the world, including a huge contingent of Poles, waved flags and cheered throughout the ceremony, with some breaking down in tears of joy.
"He was like a king to us, like a father," Marynka Ulaszewska, a 28-year-old from Poland, said, weeping.
"I hope these emotions will remain with us for a long time," she added.
"He was a holy man and he was always good with the world," said Maria Clavero (15), a student from Madrid, Spain, who came by bus with 55 pupils from her school.
Hundreds of thousands of Catholics filed into St Peter's Basilica at the end of the ceremony to pay their respects before John Paul's simple wooden coffin.
The coffin was exhumed on Friday from the crypts below St Peter's Basilica and was placed in front of the main altar. It will remain there and the basilica will remain open until all visitors who want to view it have done so.
It will then be moved to a new crypt under an altar in a side chapel near Michelangelo's statue of the 'Pieta'. The marble slab that covered his first burial place will be sent to Poland.
In Poland, tens of thousands of people gathered in Krakow and in Wadowice, where the pontiff was born in 1920 as Karol Wojtyla. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his wife Malgorzata watched the ceremony together with Wadowice residents.
The first non-Italian pope in 455 years when he was elected in 1978, John Paul brought new vitality to the Vatican but alienated many Roman Catholics with his conservative social views on homosexuality, birth control, euthanasia and Aids.
There were also uncomfortable questions about his alleged failure to tackle the issue of paedophile priests, a scandal that has deepened under Pope Benedict's six-year papacy.
An association of sex abuse victims, the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests, criticised what they described as a "hasty" push towards sainthood and said "most of the widely documented clergy sex crimes and cover-ups" took place while John Paul was at the Vatican. (© Daily Telegraph, London)