VATICAN—Pope John Paul II was a true believer, a courageous voice of truth and a man whose witness to the faith grew more eloquent as his ability to speak declined, Pope Benedict XVI and others who worked closely with the late pope said at events for his beatification.
“John Paul II is blessed because of his faith — a strong, generous and apostolic faith,” Pope Benedict said May 1 just minutes after formally beatifying his predecessor.
In the beatification proclamation, Pope Benedict said that after a consultation with many bishops and faithful and a study by the Congregation for Saints’ Causes, he had decided that “the venerable servant of God, John Paul II, pope, henceforth will be called blessed” and his feast will be Oct. 22, the anniversary of the inauguration of his pontificate in 1978.
Italian police said that for the beatification Mass more than 1 million people were gathered in and around the Vatican and in front of large video screens in several parts of Rome. The next morning 60,000 people gathered in St. Peter’s Square for a Mass in thanksgiving for the beatification.
The official celebrations began with a nighttime prayer vigil April 30 at the Circus Maximus, the site of ancient Roman racetrack.
The crowd — estimated at about 200,000 people — cheered French Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, whose cure from Parkinson’s disease was accepted as the miracle that paved the way for Pope John Paul’s beatification. The nun beamed as she recounted her unexpected healing.
She said when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2001 at the age of 40, she found it difficult to watch Pope John Paul, who suffered from the same disease. “I saw in him the image of my illness. But I admired his strength and courage,” she said.
Two months after the pope died, her condition worsened. Then, after prayers to the late pope, she awoke early one morning feeling well rested.
“I felt something had changed in me, and I was healed,” she said. The crowd in the Circus Maximus erupted in applause.
Many others in the crowds for the events also had personal stories about Pope John Paul. Likewise, Pope Benedict ended his homily at the beatification Mass sharing his own personal story.
“I would like to thank God for the gift of having worked for many years with Blessed Pope John Paul II,” he said.
As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1982 until his election in 2005, Pope Benedict said he worked at the pope’s side “and came to revere him.”
“His example of prayer continually impressed and edified me: he remained deeply united to God even amid the many demands of his ministry,” the pope said.
Pope Benedict said that even at the moment of his death people “perceived the fragrance of his sanctity and in any number of ways God’s people showed their veneration for him. For this reason, with all due respect for the church’s canonical norms, I wanted his cause of beatification to move forward with reasonable haste.”
After the Mass, Pope Benedict went into St. Peter’s Basilica and knelt in prayer for four minutes before Blessed John Paul’s casket, which was set in front of the main altar. After the pope left, the concelebrating cardinals filed up to the wooden casket, touching it lightly and kissing it.
Later, the Vatican opened the basilica to the general public and kept it open until 3 a.m. Vatican police said 250,000 people filed past the casket or knelt in prayer near it in those first 13 hours. The basilica was opened again after the thanksgiving Mass May 2 so more people could pay their respects.
Presiding at the Mass of thanksgiving May 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, thanked God for “having given us a pope able to give the Catholic Church not only a universal reach and a moral authority on a global level like never before,” but also one who helped Catholics be “more spiritual, more biblical and more centered on the word of God.”
“Finally, we thank the Lord for having given us a saint like him,” Cardinal Bertone said.
Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz of Krakow, who was Pope John Paul’s personal secretary for nearly 40 years, spoke at the beginning of the thanksgiving Mass, noting that the late pope was declared blessed in the same square where almost 30 years ago a Turkish gunman tried to assassinate him.
“We can never forget that 30 years ago, in this very square, he gave his blood for the cause of Christ,” Cardinal Dziwisz said.
The assassination attempt took place May 13, 1981, while the pope was riding through the square during his weekly general audience.
During the beatification Mass May 1, a silver reliquary containing a vial of Blessed John Paul’s blood was carried up to the altar by Polish Sister Tobiana Sobodka, who ran Pope John Paul’s household, and by Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, who was cured of Parkinson’s disease.
The reliquary, a sculpture of olive branches, also was carried in procession to the altar at the thanksgiving Mass.
While the biggest groups of pilgrims at the beatification events came from Italy and Poland, more than 80 countries sent official delegations and most of them had at least a few pilgrims present as well.
Thousands of people spent a chilly, damp night camped out near the Vatican in an attempt to find a place in St. Peter’s Square. The gates were scheduled to open at 5:30 a.m. for the 10 a.m. Mass, but the crowds were so large that police began letting people in at 2 a.m.
Weather forecasts of a weekend of heavy rains turned into innocuous grey clouds April 30 and then sunny skies May 1, which many attributed to Blessed John Paul.
“We prayed to John Paul that it wouldn’t rain,” Josephine Faehrmann, a young woman from Sydney, Australia, said at the April 30 vigil. She and her friends planned to sleep outside.
By 12:30 a.m. on beatification day, thousands of people already were camping out against buildings, on strips of grass and on sidewalks several blocks from the Vatican since all access roads to St. Peter’s Square were closed.
Isabel Marin, 16, said she and her two friends from Madrid, Spain, stayed on the street all night. She had a brand new air mattress, but didn’t have room to unroll it.
Although she was only 10 when Pope John Paul died, Marin said, “our parents have told us a lot about him and told us this was a great opportunity to grow our faith.”
“Pope John Paul was a wonderful pope. He was like us. My mom showed me a video where he was watching a clown and really laughing. And I saw another video where he moved his feet when the people were singing, following the beat,” she said.Contributing to this story were John Thavis and Carol Glatz at the Vatican.