1.5m watch as John Paul II is beatified

POPE Benedict XVI beatified Pope John Paul II before 1.5 million people in St Peter’s Square and surrounding streets yesterday, moving the former pontiff one step closer to sainthood in one of the largest turnouts ever for a Vatican Mass.

The crowd in Rome 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 a 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, referring to John Paul’s role in helping bring down communism. Benedict dotted his remarks with personal recollections of a man he came to “revere” during their near-quarter of a century working together.

Beatification is the first major milestone on the path to sainthood, one of the Catholic Church’s highest honours. In order for him to be canonised, a second miracle will have to be attributed to his intercession.

The beatification, the fastest in modern times, coming just six years after his death, is a morale boost for a church scarred by the sex abuse crisis, but it has also triggered a new wave of anger from victims because the scandal occurred under John Paul’s 27-year watch.

Police placed wide sections of Rome off limits to private cars to ensure security for the 16 heads of state, eight prime ministers and five members of European royal houses attending.

Helicopters flew overhead, police boats patrolled the Tiber river and some 5,000 troops manned police barricades to ensure priests, delegations and those with VIP passes could get to their places amid the throngs of pilgrims.

Spain’s Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia mingled with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Poland’s historic Solidarity leader and former president Lech Walesa and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who sidestepped an EU travel ban to attend.

Benedict put John Paul on the fast-track for sainthood when he dispensed with the traditional five-year waiting period and allowed the beatification process to begin weeks after his death on April 2, 2005. Benedict was responding to chants of “santo subito” (sainthood immediately) which erupted during John Paul’s funeral.

Around the world, Catholics celebrated the beatification, jamming into churches from Mexico to Australia to pray and watch broadcasts of the Rome Mass on television.

In John Paul’s native Poland, tens of thousands of people gathered in a sanctuary in Krakow and in Wadowice, where the pontiff was born in 1920 as Karol Wojtyla.

Speaking in Latin, Benedict pronounced John Paul “Blessed” shortly after the start of the Mass, in a scene reminiscent of his funeral, when some 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.

“Even then, we perceived the fragrance of his sanctity,” Benedict said.

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.

After the nearly three-hour Mass, Benedict prayed before John Paul’s coffin inside St Peter’s Basilica, which was expected to stay open throughout the night and for as long as it takes to accommodate the throngs of faithful who want to pay their respects.

Vatican joy

* POLICE put the figure of those at the Mass yesterday at 1.5 million; only a few hundred thousand could fit into St Peter’s Square and the surrounding streets but others watched on some of the 14 huge TV screens set up around the city or listened to it on radios in Polish or Italian.

* Thousands of pilgrims, many of them from John Paul’s native Poland, spent the night in sleeping bags on bridges and in piazzas around the city.

* It is the fastest beatification on record, coming just six years after John Paul II died and beating out the beatification of Mother Teresa by a few days.

* The beatification is taking place despite a drumbeat of criticism about the record speed with which John Paul is being honoured, and continued outrage about clerical abuse: many of the crimes and cover-ups of priests who raped children occurred on John Paul’s 27-year watch.

* Vatican officials have insisted that John Paul deserves beatification despite the fallout from the abuse scandal, saying the saint-making process isn’t a judgment of how he administered the church but whether he lived a life of Christian virtue.

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