VATICAN CITY — Some 1.5 million pilgrims flooded Rome on 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 its surrounding streets, and for those 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, 28, from Ciechocinek, Poland, said, weeping. “I hope these emotions will remain with us for a long time,” she said.
Pope Benedict XVI 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 from God.”
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.”
But 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’s legacy is clouded by evidence of a dwindling faith: empty churches in Europe, too few priests in North and South America, priests who violate their celibacy requirement in places such as Africa and a general decline of Catholicism 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 Sunday 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 on Sunday, for hours filing past the 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 attention.
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 in, suggesting it is 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 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 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 a European Union 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 others for a 6-mile race followed by a Mass near Manila Bay in the Philippines.
In Brazil, which has more Roman Catholics than any other nation, the beatification resonated among the faithful and sparked hope that it might renew faith in the church in the South American nation which is facing stiff competition for souls from evangelical Protestant movements.
“The beatification is going to renovate the faith of those who may have lost their way and left the church,” said Adimir Godoy, as he left a Sunday Mass at the Santa Cecilia church in central Sao Paulo. “We were all blessed by the life of Pope John Paul and he deserves to be a saint.”
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 three-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 collection.
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 ultimately will be moved to a side chapel inside the basilica just next to Michelangelo’s famous marble “Pieta” statue.
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.
Associated Press writers Daniela Petroff in Vatican City, Bradley Brooks in Sao Paulo, Jim Gomez in Manila and Monika Scislowska in Krakow contributed to this report.