VATICAN CITY — Some 1.5 million pilgrims flooded Rome
Sunday to watch Pope John Paul II move a step closer to sainthood in one of the
largest Vatican Masses in history, an outpouring of adoration for a beloved and
historic figure after years marred by church scandal.
The turnout for the beatification far exceeded even the
most optimistic expectation of 1 million people, the number Rome city officials
predicted. For Catholics filling St. Peter’s Square and streets and watching
around the world, the beatification was a welcome hearkening back to the days
when the pope was almost universally beloved.
“He was like a king to us, like a father,”
Marynka Ulaszewska, a 28-year-old from Ciechocinek, Poland, said, weeping.
“I hope these emotions will remain with us for a long time,” she
Pope Benedict XVI, who has set off controversies with
remarks on Islam, contraception, and other issues, praised John Paul for
turning back the seemingly “irreversible” tide of communism with
faith, courage and “the strength of a titan, a strength which came to him
John Paul is universally credited with helping bring down
communism in his native Poland with support for the Solidarity labor movement,
accelerating the fall of the Iron Curtain.
“He rightly reclaimed for Christianity that impulse
of hope which had in some sense faltered before Marxism and the ideology of
progress,” Benedict said. “He restored to Christianity its true face
as a religion of hope.”
John Paul’s beatification, the fastest in modern times,
has triggered a new wave of anger from sex-abuse victims because much of the
criminality occurred during his 27-year watch. Critics also say John Paul left
behind empty churches in Europe, too few priests in North and South America,
priests who violate their celibacy requirement in places like Africa and a
general dwindling of the faith in former Christian strongholds.
John Paul’s defenders argue that an entire generation of
new priests owe their vocations to John Paul, and that millions of lay
Catholics found their faith during the World Youth Days, which were a hallmark
of his papacy.
Vatican officials have insisted that the saint-making
process isn’t a judgment of how John Paul administered the church but rather
whether he lived a life of Christian virtue.
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.
With a sea of red and white Polish flags fluttering in
the square, the beatification evoked the days after the pope’s death in 2005,
when some 3 million faithful held vigil under his studio window and filed past
his remains for days on end.
Pilgrims from Mexico to Mali repeated the procession
after the Mass Sunday, for hours filing past his simple wooden coffin that had
been raised from the grottoes underneath St. Peter’s Basilica to the church’s
center aisle, where it was surrounded by four Swiss Guards standing at
Beatification is the last major milestone before a
candidate is declared a saint. John Paul needs another miracle attributed to
his intercession before he can be canonized.
Already, Vatican officials have said reports of
inexplicable cures were pouring into the Vatican, suggesting that it’s only a
matter of time before John Paul is declared a saint or even a doctor of the
church, an even greater honor.
Police placed wide swaths of Rome even miles (kilometers)
from the Vatican off limits to private cars to ensure security for the
estimated 16 heads of state, eight prime ministers and five members of European
royal houses attending.
Helicopters flew overhead, police boats patrolled the
nearby Tiber River and some 5,000 uniformed troops manned police barricades to
ensure priests, official delegations and those with coveted VIP passes could
get to their places amid the throngs of pilgrims.
Spain’s Crown Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia, wearing
a black lace mantilla, mingled with Italian Premier 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.
“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.”
Many in Rome and in capitals around the world erupted in
cheers, tears and applause as Benedict pronounced John Paul “Blessed”
and an enormous color photo of a young, smiling John Paul was unveiled over the
loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica.
“John Paul is an angel, he has such charisma,”
said Esperanza Concilion, a 69-year-old hairdresser who traveled from
Guadalajara, Mexico for the beatification.
Catholics jammed churches from Mexico to Australia to
pray and watch broadcasts of the Rome Mass on television.
“He was a model and an inspiration who united the
world with his extraordinary charisma,” said John Paul Bustillo, a 16-year-old
medical student named after the pontiff who turned out Sunday along with more
than 3,000 for a six-mile (10-kilometer) race followed by a Mass near Manila
Bay in the Philippines.
In John Paul’s native Poland, tens of thousands of people
gathered in rain in a major sanctuary in Krakow and in Wadowice, where the
pontiff was born in 1920 as Karol Wojtyla. Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his
wife Malgorzata watched the ceremony together with Wadowice residents.
After the nearly 3-hour Mass, Benedict prayed before John
Paul’s coffin, which had a copy of the Lorsch Gospels on it, an illuminated
medieval book of the Gospels that is one of the most precious in the Vatican’s
The basilica was expected to stay open for as long as it
takes to accommodate the throngs of faithful who paid their respects and took
photos as loudspeakers piped in hymns and clips of some of John Paul’s most
memorable homilies and speeches.
The sealed coffin will ultimately be moved to a side
chapel inside the basilica just next to Michelangelo’s famous marble
Police put the figure of those attending the Mass at 1.5
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 hosptalization.
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.