Pope Benedict XVI has beatified Pope John Paul II before the faithful in St Peter’s Square and surrounding streets, moving the beloved former pontiff one step closer to possible sainthood.
The crowd in Rome and in capitals around the world erupted in cheers, tears and applause as an enormous photo of a young, smiling John Paul was unveiled over the loggia of St Peter’s Basilica and a choir launched into hymn long associated with the Polish-born Pope.
“He restored to Christianity its true face as a religion of hope,” Benedict said in his homily, which was dotted with personal recollections of a man Benedict said he came to “revere” during their near-quarter century working together.
Beatification is the first major milestone on the path to possible sainthood, one of the Catholic Church’s highest honours. A second miracle attributed to John Paul’s intercession is needed for him to be canonised.
“He went all over the world,” said Bishop Jean Zerbo of Bamako, Mali, who came to Rome for the ceremony. “Today, we’re coming to him.”
On Sunday, a group of pilgrims from Krakow affixed a banner to a fence outside the square that says “Santo Subito,” evidence that for many of the faithful, John Paul already is a saint.
Speaking in Latin, Benedict pronounced John Paul “blessed” shortly after the start of the Mass, held under bright blue skies and amid a sea of Poland’s red and white flags – a scene reminiscent of John Paul’s 2005 funeral, when three million people paid homage to the Pope.
Benedict recalled that day six years ago, saying the grief the world felt then was tempered by immense gratitude for his life and pontificate.
“Even then, we perceived the fragrance of his sanctity,” Benedict said, explaining the “reasonable haste” with which John Paul was being honoured.
Benedict said that through John Paul’s faith, courage and strength – “the strength of a titan, a strength which came to him from God” – John Paul had turned back the seemingly “irreversible” tide of Marxism.
“He rightly reclaimed for Christianity that impulse of hope which had in some sense faltered before Marxism and the ideology of progress,” Benedict said.
Police, government officials and the Vatican all put the figure of those attending the Mass at over a million; only a few hundred thousand could fit into St Peter’s Square and the surrounding streets but others watched it on some of the 14 huge TV screens set up around town or listened to it on radios in Polish or Italian.
During the Mass, Benedict received a silver reliquary holding a vial of blood taken from John Paul during his final hospitalisation. The relic, a key feature of beatification ceremonies, will be available for the faithful to venerate.
It was presented to him by Sister Tobiana, the Polish nun who tended to John Paul throughout his pontificate, and Sister Marie Simone-Pierre of France, whose inexplicable recovery from Parkinson’s disease was decreed to be the miracle necessary for John Paul to be beatified.
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.