VATICAN CITY (AP) — The pope on Friday signed off on the miracle needed to beatify Pope John Paul II, and set May 1 as the date to honor one of the most beloved popes of all times as a model of saintliness for the church.
Pope Benedict XVI said in a decree that a French nun's recovery from Parkinson's disease was miraculous, the last step needed for beatification. A second miracle is needed for the Polish-born John Paul to be made a saint.
The May 1 ceremony, which Benedict himself will celebrate, is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to Rome — a major morale boost for a church reeling from a wave of violence against Christians and fallout from the clerical sex abuse scandal.
"This is a huge and important cause of joy," Warsaw Archbishop Kazimierz Nycz told reporters at his residence in the Polish capital.
Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, John Paul's longtime secretary and friend, expressed "huge thanks" to Benedict for the decree. "We are happy today," he said.
Benedict put John Paul on the fast track to possible sainthood just weeks after he died in 2005, responding to the chants of "Santo Subito!" or "Sainthood immediately!" that erupted during his funeral.
Benedict waived the typical five-year waiting period before the process could begin, but he insisted that the investigation into John Paul's life be thorough so as to not leave any doubts about his virtues.
John Paul's beatification will nevertheless be the fastest on record, coming just over six years after his death and beating out Mother Teresa's then-record beatification in 2003 by a few days.
The last remaining hurdle in John Paul's case concerned the approval by Vatican-appointed panels of doctors and theologians, cardinals and bishops that the cure of French nun, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, was a miracle due to the intercession of the late pope.
The nun has said she felt reborn when she woke up two months after John Paul died, cured of the disease that had made walking, writing and driving a car nearly impossible. She and her fellow sisters of the Congregation of Little Sisters of Catholic Maternity Wards had prayed to John Paul, who also suffered from Parkinson's.
On Friday, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre said John Paul was and continues to be an inspiration to her because of his defense of the unborn and because they both had Parkinson's.
John Paul "hasn't left me. He won't leave me until the end of my life," she told French Catholic TV station KTO and Italy's state-run RAI television.
Wearing a white habit and wire-rimmed glasses, she appeared in good health and showed no signs of tremors or slurred speech which are common symptoms of Parkinson's.
"John Paul II did everything he could for life, to defend life," she said. "He was very close to the smallest and weakest. How many times did we see him approach a handicapped person, a sick person?"
Last year, there were some questions about whether the nun's original diagnosis was correct. But in a statement Friday, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints said Vatican-appointed doctors had "scrupulously" studied the case and determined that her cure had no scientific explanation.
Once he is beatified, John Paul will be given the title "blessed" and can be publicly venerated. Many people, especially in Poland, already venerate him privately, but the ceremony will make it official.
Born in Wadowice, Poland, in 1920, Karol Wojtyla was the youngest pope in 125 years and the first non-Italian in 455 years when he was elected pope in 1978.
He brought a new vitality to the Vatican, and quickly became the most accessible modern pope, sitting down for meals with factory workers, skiing and wading into crowds to embrace the faithful.
His Polish roots nourished a doctrinal conservatism — opposition to contraception, euthanasia, abortion and women priests — that rankled liberal Catholics in the United States and Western Europe.
But his common touch also made him a crowd-pleasing superstar whose 26-year papacy carried the Roman Catholic Church into Christianity's third millennium and emboldened eastern Europeans to bring down the communist system.
He survived an assassination attempt in St. Peter's Square in 1981 — and then forgave the Turk who had shot him.
He was the most traveled pope ever, visiting more than 120 nations during the third-longest papacy and covering distance equal to nearly 1 1/2 trips to the moon.
After suffering for years from the effects of Parkinson's disease, he died in his Vatican apartment on April 2, 2005, at the age of 84.
While adored by Catholics, John Paul did not escape scrutiny about the clerical abuse scandal which came to light in the final years of his papacy. Many of the thousands of sexual abuse cases that emerged in Europe and beyond last year concerned crimes or cover-ups that occurred under his watch.
Vatican officials have said there was nothing in John Paul's record that called into question his path to beatification.
Carl Anderson, head of the Knights of Columbus, one of the world's largest Catholic fraternal service organizations, noted that John Paul's beatification process is not a "score card on his administration of the Holy See."
Rather, he said, it's a statement about his personal sanctity since beatification is way of holding up Catholics as models for the faithful.
"Pope John Paul's life is precisely such a model because it was lived beautifully and with love, respect and forgiveness for all," Mr. Anderson told the AP in an e-mail. "We saw this in the way he reached out to the poor, the neglected, those of other faiths, even the man who shot him. He did all of this despite being so personally affected by events of the bloodiest century in history."
Cardinal Dziwisz, John Paul's most trusted friend who seemed at times impatient with the slow pace of the process, gave thanks on Friday from Krakow, where he is archbishop.
"We are happy that this process came to an end, that what people asked for — "Santo Subito" — was fulfilled," Cardinal Dziwisz said. "I express great joy on behalf of the entire diocese of Krakow — and I think I am also authorized to express this on behalf of all of Poland."
Associated Press reporters Vanessa Gera in Warsaw and Angela Doland in Paris contributed to this report.