More than a million people have crowded St Peter’s Square and surrounding streets for the beatification of Pope John Paul II, a celebration to honour one of the most adored popes as he moves a step closer to possible sainthood.
Wearing John Paul’s vestments, Pope Benedict XVI kissed babies as he entered the piazza that was packed before dawn in a scene reminiscent of John Paul’s final days in 2005.
Then, three million people held around-the-clock vigils under his studio window and bid farewell to him once he died.
The beatification, the fastest in modern times, is a morale boost for a Church starred by the sex abuse crisis, but it has also triggered a new wave of anger from victims groups because the scandal happened under John Paul’s 27-year watch.
Police placed wide swathes of Rome miles from the Vatican off limits to private cars to ensure security for some of the estimated 16 heads of state and five members of European royalty attending.
Spain’s Crown Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia wearing a black lace mantilla mingled with Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, Poland’s Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who sidestepped an EU travel ban to attend.
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.
Thousands of pilgrims, many of them from John Paul’s native Poland, spent the night in sleeping bags on bridges and in piazzas around town, and then packed St Peter’s as soon as the barricades opened over an hour in advance because the crowds were too great.
They stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the main boulevard leading to the Vatican, Via della Conciliazione, as well as on side streets around it and the bridges crossing the Tiber leading to St Peter’s. Rome police headquarters put the number attending at over a million.
“John Paul was a wonderful man and it’s a privilege to be here. It’s wonderful to see people from all across the world,” said Anne Honiball, 48, a nursing home administrator from Worthing, England who carried a small Union Jack flag.
“We missed the royal wedding but we are Catholics and this was a bit more important, I suppose,” said Honibal, a former Protestant who converted to Catholicism 10 years ago.
It is the fastest beatification on record, coming just six years after John Paul died.
Benedict put John Paul on the fast-track for possible sainthood when he dispensed with the traditional five-year waiting period and allowed the beatification process to begin weeks after his April 2 2005, death. Benedict was responding to chants of “Santo Subito” or “Sainthood Immediately” which erupted during John Paul’s funeral.