Pope Benedict XVI beatified Pope John Paul II before more than a million faithful in St. Peter's Square and surrounding streets Sunday, moving the beloved former pontiff one step closer to possible sainthood.
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 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, which was dotted with personal recollections of a man Benedict said he came to "revere" during their near-quarter century working together.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli told Weekend Edition host Liane Hansen that in some ways the ceremony contrasted sharply with John Paul's style.
A look at the steps the Catholic Church follows to recognize someone as a saint:
Stage 1: Investigation
Usually, five years must pass after a person's death before he or she can be considered for sainthood. However, the pope can waive this requirement, as Pope Benedict XVI did in the case of the late John Paul II, who died in 2005. To begin the process, a bishop opens a "cause" and, if there's no objection from the Holy See, assembles a tribunal to examine the potential saint's life. The investigation looks for evidence that the person exercised "heroic virtue."
Once the local investigation is done, it is passed on to Rome, where additional inquiries are made. If church officials there sign off, the cause is presented to the pope, who can then declare the person "venerable." Pope Benedict did this for John Paul II in December 2009.
Stage 2: Beatification
The next step to sainthood is to have a miracle attributed to the person's intercession with God after death. Often, these are medical miracles. The miracle attributed to John Paul is the cure of a French nun who had Parkinson's disease, the same disease the former pope had. Once a miracle is confirmed by the church, the current pope can declare the person "blessed." (If a person is judged to have died a martyr, no miracle is required for beatification.)
Stage 3: Canonization
For the pope to declare the "blessed" a saint, another miracle must be confirmed. (NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty recently examined how the church investigates miracles.) The entire process can take decades to complete.
During John Paul II's own time as pope, he made the entire process easier and declared 482 saints — more than all the popes in the previous 500 years. Under Benedict, the process has become more rigorous.
"Whatever you think about his dogma, he was open to local traditions and modern music in his big open-air masses," she said. "But today's liturgy reflected more the style of his successor: it was full of somber Gregorian chants and much of it was in Latin; a ritual less suited, I think, to outdoor ceremonies not in tune with the age of most of the pilgrims who came here today."
Beatification is the first major milestone on the path to possible 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 has also triggered a new wave of anger from victims because the scandal occurred under John Paul's 27-year watch.
But, said John Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, "the overwhelming sentiment in the Catholic grassroots would appear to be that John Paul II was indeed a holy man who was worthy of being declared a saint."
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, seven prime ministers and five members of European royal houses attending.
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 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."
Veteran Vatican analyst Marco Politi listed what he said were John Paul's three greatest achievements.
"He has transformed the papacy into the spokesman of human rights. He has opened a dialogue between Jews, Muslims and Christians. And third point, a great act of repentment of Catholic Church for errors and horrors committed through centuries."
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.
Will They Become Saints? It'll Take A Miracle
"I think that whenever you have a pope declared a saint, there is always some confusion as to whether what's being beatified or canonized is a person or a papacy," Allen told NPR's Hansen. "And I think there are some inside and outside the church who believe that the Vatican is in a rush to declare John Paul a saint in part because they liked his policies as pope and want to see those policies continue."
But on Sunday, a group of pilgrims from Krakow affixed a banner to a fence outside the square that says "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 Honibal, a former Protestant who converted to Catholicism 10 years ago.
After John Paul II's death in April 2005, nuns belonging to the Little Sisters of Catholic Motherhood in France and Senegal began praying for him to intervene with God to heal one of their sisters. French Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, who had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, saw her condition worsen until June 2, according to Catholic News Service.
That day, she wrote John Paul II's name on a piece of paper with a trembling hand, according to the Catholic News Agency. By that night, she had improved — and by the next morning, she felt completely cured, she says. (You can watch a video of Sister Marie Simon-Pierre describing her experience.)
Three separate Vatican panels — including medical and theological experts — signed off on the miracle before Pope Benedict XVI approved the official decree, CNS reports.
Questions have been raised about the accuracy of the diagnosis and whether it can be certain her symptoms won't return. But "Vatican sources said that, in the end, the experts were satisfied that it was Parkinson's, and that there was no scientific explanation for the cure," CNS writes.
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 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 agency quoted 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 some 3 million people paid homage to the pope.
Benedict recalled that day six years ago, saying the grief the world felt then was tempered by immense gratitude for his life and pontificate.
"Even then, we perceived the fragrance of his sanctity," Benedict said, explaining the "reasonable haste" with which John Paul was being honored.
Benedict said that through John Paul's faith, courage and strength — "the strength of a titan, a strength which came to him from God" — John Paul had turned back the seemingly "irreversible" tide of Marxism.
"He rightly reclaimed for Christianity that impulse of hope which had in some sense faltered before Marxism and the ideology of progress," Benedict said.
Police, government officials and the Vatican all put the figure of those attending the Mass at over a 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.
"I am disappointed but also happy to be here for the atmosphere," said Boleslaw Wisniewski, 83, who came with five members of his family by bus from Warsaw. He stood listening to the music drifting over the packed crowd, but could see nothing.
"He's our holy father — a Pole — and we are proud," he said.
During the Mass, Benedict received a silver reliquary holding a vial of blood taken from John Paul during his final hosptalization. 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.
Helicopters flew overhead, police boats patrolled the nearby Tiber River and some 5,000 uniformed troops patrolled police barricades to ensure priests, official delegations and those with coveted VIP passes could get to their places.
Thousands of pilgrims, many of them from John Paul's native Poland, spent the night in sleeping bags on bridges and in piazzas around town, and then packed St. Peter's as soon as the barricades opened over an hour in advance because the crowds were too great.
They stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the main boulevard leading to the Vatican, Via della Conciliazione, as well as on side streets around it and the bridges crossing the Tiber leading to St. Peter's.
It's the fastest beatification on record, coming just six years after John Paul died and beating out the beatification of Mother Teresa by a few days.
The beatification ceremonies kicked off officially with a all-night prayer vigil that began on Rome's ancient Circus Maximus field and continued as pilgrims spent the night moving around eight churches that stayed open all night, a "white night" of prayer in honor of the late pope.
"The weather is mild and so it will not be a problem to pass the night here, and there is also a very nice atmosphere," said Pauline Rosenfeld, a 20-year-old pilgrim from Paris sitting with friends in her sleeping bag gearing up for a night spent outdoors.
The beatification is taking 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.
Jason Berry, author of a landmark investigation of the church sex abuse crisis, says the many unpunished clerical crimes and cover-ups that occurred on his watch were John Paul's greatest failure.
"Someone who was so fearless in his confrontation with the Communist empire, I for one do not understand how he could not have engaged in the same fearless introspection about the church internally, he says.
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" of victims.
Rome itself seemed invaded by Poles overjoyed that their native son was being honored. Special trains, planes and buses shuttled Poles in for the beatification.
Anna Fotyga, a former Polish foreign minister and member of Poland's parliament, arrived on a special train Sunday morning carrying the Polish parliamentary delegation. She reminisced about John Paul's impact on communist Poland in the late 1970s and 80s.
"I was a student at that time, and actually seeing him, listening to him started transformation in Poland, I am sure," she said.