The late Pope John Paul II moves a step closer to sainthood and is officially beatified at the Vatican before a crowd of over a million people, the largest in Rome since his funeral six years ago.
In the last stage before sainthood, the late Pope was honoured by crowds at St Peter’s Square in the Vatican where a tapestry illustrating John Paul was unveiled.
“From now on Pope John Paul shall be called ‘blessed'”, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed in Latin, establishing that his predecessor’s feast day would be Oct 22, the day of the inauguration of John Paul’s pontificate in 1978.
Among the packed crowd was the French nun Sister Marie Simon-Pierre Normand who says her cure from Parkinson’s disease is attributed to John Paul’s intercession with God to perform a miracle.
The cure was part of the case for the beatification. In order for John Paul to be declared a saint, the Vatican will have to attribute another miracle to John Paul’s intercession after the beatification.
After the proclamation, 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.
Pope Benedict XVI kissed the reliquary during the ceremony.
It comes amid concerns over the speed of the beatification – just six years after his death – and the sex abuse scandal which has rocked the Catholic Church.
St Peter’s Square was packed with pilgrims, with many participants from John Paul’s native Poland.
Dozens of red and white Polish flags bobbed above the crowd and a cheer went up when a group of Poles released a large banner reading “Thank You, God”, held aloft by balloons.
Police estimated the crowd in the Vatican area at about 1.5 million people. Many camped out during the night in the square, which was bedecked with posters of the late pope and one of his most famous sayings, “Do not be afraid!”
“We were at the funeral and we just had to be here to see him beatified,” said Janusc Skibinski, 40, who drove 29 hours with his family from their home near the border with Belarus.
Some 90 official delegations from around the world, including members of five European royal families and 16 heads of state, attended the beatification.
They included Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who has been widely criticised for human rights abuses in his country. Mugabe is banned from travelling to the European Union, but the Vatican – a sovereign state – is not a member of the bloc.
Pope John Paul’s coffin was exhumed on Friday from the crypts below St Peter’s Basilica and was placed in front of the main altar.
Benedict was the first to pay respect before the coffin, which had a bible placed on it, followed by cardinals, royalty and heads of state.
The coffin 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.