A million pilgrims see beatification of John Paul II

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World leaders watch as Pope Benedict XVI brings his Polish predecessor a step closer to sainthood. Peter Popham reports from Rome

Until the last minute nobody had a clear idea how many pilgrims were going to flood into Rome for Pope John Paul II's beatification. During his funeral in April 2005 the Italian capital had effectively become a Polish city for the duration, and the authorities were staggered by the size of the crowds.

This week, too, the sheer scale of this pope's persistent following took them by surprise. A million was the top end of the numbers they were expecting; but when dawn broke on 1 May, not only St Peter's Square itself but the whole long road leading from the Tiber to the square, La Via della Conciliazione, constructed by Mussolini, was packed solid. Thousands more wandered forlornly along the Tiber's banks, shut out.

As the morning progressed it was clear that the prelate formerly known as Karol Wojtyla had once again, even in death, exerted his magnetic powers. A million and a half was the final estimated count of the crowd.

Not all the pilgrims had a happy night of it. In the shadow of Castel Sant' Angelo, the tower built by Emperor Hadrian on the banks of the Tiber and which later became the residence of medieval popes, a 21-year-old London girl, Beatriz Tarragona-Turu, described her trying night.

Sitting on a kerbstone with exhausted fellow pilgrims under the large Union Jack flag she had brought with her, she explained how she had come to Rome with 150 young Catholics from congregations in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Scotland, accompanied by their priests.

"We got on coaches in Florence at 2pm and by 7pm we were in Rome and went to Circus Maximus," she said. The ancient Roman race track in the city centre had been taken over by the church, and screens showed films of the late pope's life, interspersed with music, prayers, and an appearance by luminaries including John Paul's ex-secretary, now Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, and Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, the 50-year-old French nun whose sudden alleged recovery from Parkinson's Disease was accepted as the miracle needed to clinch the late pope's claim to be Blessed.

"That was lovely, we all enjoyed that," Beatriz said of the event. But then things started to go wrong.

The Rome authorities had decided to make the night before the beatification a "Notte Bianca" or "White Night" with bars and restaurants and more particularly eight of the city's most important churches open all night, to encourage pilgrims to pass the hours in prayer: not, as some laymen might suppose, to give John Paul the last heave necessary to get into heaven – the church is in no doubt that he is already there – but to enhance the spirit of pilgrimage and the sanctity of the occasion.

"With our priest we set out from Circus Maximus," says Beatriz, "and walked an hour to one of these churches that was open – but it was absolutely packed, and we had to walk all the way back again." Then they set off for St Peter's, on the other side of the Tiber – another hour's walk. "We arrived at about 3am, but found that not only St Peter's but also the road leading to it was already absolutely packed. It was impossible to go forwards, but that didn't stop people pushing from behind, kids kept fainting, it was awful. We stayed there till eight in the morning. It was very, very badly organised. I made an official complaint."

With crowds around the Vatican and at Circus Maximus gazing at the screens, the solemn ceremony of beatification got under way at 10am, as John Paul II's successor as the Pope, Benedict XVI, made his way slowly through the piazza to the basilica in his open-topped Mercedes popemobile, preceded by cardinals in cream-coloured mitres and vestments.

Looking on in the front row of the crowd were President Giorgio Napolitano and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, their bitter political feud over Libya and much else temporarily set aside, and 87 foreign delegations, controversially including the Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, admitted despite the EU's ban on his travel in Europe.

Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, the fresh-faced "miracolata" – a person on whom a miracle has been visited – who, in the absence of John Paul himself, was the star of the day's proceedings, now appeared again, bearing an intricate chalice containing a phial of the late pope's blood, kept fluid thanks to an anti-coagulant, which she presented for Benedict's blessing before placing it on an altar on its own. Carefully preserved by the nurses who tended to John Paul II during his final illness, it has been formally accepted as a relic to be venerated.

As he recalled in his homily, the present Pope was a close colleague of John Paul from 1982, when he summoned him to his side in Rome to be his top theologian, until his death in 2005, and it was Benedict's powerful push that ensured that John Paul was beatified in record time.

Benedict recalled how in his first solemn mass in St Peter's Square, John Paul had declared, "Do not be afraid! Open, open wide the doors to Christ!" "He helped us not to fear the truth," said Pope Benedict, "because truth is the guarantee of liberty." "When Wojtyla ascended to the throne of Peter," he went on, "he brought with him a deep understanding of the difference between Marxism and Christianity... He rightly reclaimed for Christianity the impulse of hope which had in some sense faltered before Marxism and the ideology of progress."

Many doubts have been heaped on the fast-track beatification of the Polish pope. It has been compared to the ancient Roman practice of emperors deifying their predecessors.

One senior Roman priest, Giovanni Franzoni, cited John Paul's failure to tackle financial scandal in the Vatican, his suppression of doctrinal criticism and his assault on Latin America's "liberation theology" as reasons to doubt whether he possessed the cardinal virtues – prudence, justice, strength and temperance – to the degree that a saint requires.

Yesterday, however, there was no time for carping. Once again, six years after his death, the Wojtyla charisma swept all before it.

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