- Associated Press - Sunday, May 1, 2011

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.

Around the world, Catholics celebrated the beatification, jamming 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 others for a six-mile 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.

“I wonder what we would have been like and what would not have happened if we had not had our pope,” the PAP news agency quoted Mr. Tusk as saying. “All that good that we all have received is still working.”

Speaking in Latin, Benedict pronounced John Paul “Blessed” shortly after the start of the Mass, held under bright blue skies and amid a sea of Poland’s red and white flags - a scene reminiscent of John Paul’s 2005 funeral, when about 3 million people paid homage to the pope.

After the nearly three-hour Mass, Benedict prayed before John Paul’s coffin inside St. Peter's Basilica, which was expected to stay open through the night and for as long as it takes to accommodate the throngs of faithful who want to pay their respects.

The sealed coffin ultimately will be moved to a side chapel inside the basilica just next to Michelangelo’s famous marble “Pieta” statue.

Spanish Cardinal Agustin Garcia-Gasco Vicente, 80, suffered a heart attack Sunday morning in Rome and died before the Mass, the Vatican said.

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 hospitalization. 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.

The beatification took place despite a drumbeat of criticism about the record speed with which John Paul is being honored, and continued outrage about clerical abuse: Many of the crimes and cover-ups of priests who raped children occurred on John Paul’s 27-year watch.

Vatican officials have insisted that John Paul deserves beatification despite the fallout from the abuse scandal, saying the saint-making process isn’t a judgment of how he administered the church but rather whether he lived a life of Christian virtue.

But victims groups such as the U.S. Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests have said the speedy beatification was just “rubbing more salt in these wounds.”