VATICAN CITY | Pope Benedict XVI beatified Pope John Paul II before 1.5 million faithful in St. Peter's Square and surrounding streets Sunday, moving the beloved former pontiff one step closer to sainthood in one of the largest turnouts ever for a Vatican Mass.
The crowd in Rome and in capitals around the world 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 decisive role in helping bring down communism.
Benedict dotted his remarks with personal recollections of a man he came to “revere” during their near quarter-century working together.
Beatification is the first major milestone on the path to sainthood, one of the Catholic Church’s highest honors. A second miracle attributed to John Paul’s intercession is needed for him to be canonized.
The beatification, the fastest in modern times, is a morale boost for a church scarred by the sex abuse crisis, but it also has triggered a new wave of anger from victims because the scandal occurred under John Paul’s 27-year watch.
Police placed wide swaths of Rome even miles 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 about 5,000 uniformed troops manned police barricades to ensure that 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 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.
“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.”
Vendors hawked John Paul trinkets: bottle openers, key chains, cushions, calendars and T-shirts.
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 April 2, 2005, death. Benedict was responding to chants of “Santo subito” or “Sainthood immediately” that erupted during John Paul’s funeral.
On Sunday, a group of pilgrims from Krakow affixed a banner to a fence outside the square that said “Santo Subito,” evidence that for many of the faithful, John Paul already is a saint.
“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 Ms. Honiball, a former Protestant who converted to Catholicism 10 years ago.