Poland returned to Rome yesterday as hundreds of thousands of devotees of the late Pope John Paul II poured into the city to witness the fastest beatification in modern times – 15 days quicker that that of John Paul's close friend Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
More than two million people took over the Italian capital for his funeral six years ago, punctuating the solemn and gloriously orchestrated proceedings with raucous cries of "Santo subito!" – the pithy Italian way of saying, "Make him a saint at once!" Now they have returned to see their demand partially satisfied, with Pope Benedict XVI fulfilling the pledge he made after his former boss's death and putting the seal on a beatification process which has yielded the formal requirement of one attested "miracolata": a person cured, it is claimed, by the intercession of John Paul in heaven.
A French nun, Marie Simon-Pierre, 50, claimed she was cured of Parkinson's disease after praying to the late pope in June 2005. By this means, the faithful are satisfied that not only is their man safely in paradise, but that he is in sufficiently good standing to see that their prayers are answered.
So now the Poles are returning to witness the consummation of their hopes and prayers: riding into town in hundreds of coaches and special trains. For many, it will be a lightning pilgrimage: arriving around midnight on Saturday, lurking on the banks of the Tiber until the Vatican opens La Via della Conciliazione – the boulevard that leads to St Peter's – at 5.30am, streaming into St Peter's for the ceremony, then soon afterwards straggling home again. The train journey takes 26 hours each way. But as one of the pilgrims, Mieczyslawa Rzepecka, told AP yesterday, "If you love John Paul, this is not hard."
Along with the pilgrims came 87 state delegations from around the world, including one from Zimbabwe headed by Robert Mugabe. His presence, explained a Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, was a "function" of the diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Zimbabwe, "so there is nothing to hide". Mr Mugabe is the subject of an EU-wide travel ban, and the Vatican had to obtain special permission for him to come. He was also present at the Pope's funeral in 2005, where he contrived to shake the hand of Prince Charles, and he returned to Rome in 2008 for a world food summit. Charles will be spared a second embarrassment, as Britain is represented this time by the Duke of Gloucester, the Queen's cousin.
As pilgrims and diplomats poured into the city, the final preparations for the beatification pressed ahead. An ampoule of blood of the blessed one, preserved by nurses at Rome's Bambino Gesu hospital during his final illness and kept liquid with anti-coagulant, was taken from the hospital to St Peter's where it will be placed on the altar and venerated as an official relic.
Then, on Friday afternoon, the white marble tomb in the crypt under St Peter's, where the late pope's remains have reposed since his funeral, was opened by workmen in the presence of John Paul's former close associates, including his long-time Polish secretary, now Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, and the nuns who ran his household. As the small gathering prayed under the video cameras, the plain wooden coffin was removed from the tomb. Later it was carried up to the ground floor of the basilica and installed in front of the main altar where it will remain on display, the Vatican announced, until everyone who wants to view it has done so.
The mass return of the Poles was a vivid reminder of the way in which the Polish Pope John Paul, over the course of a papacy that lasted more than a generation, from 1978 to 2005, moulded the Catholic church in his own image and that of the fiercely conservative and authoritarian tradition from which he hailed.
Elevated to the papacy as a mere stripling of 58, he was virile and charismatic like few of his recent predecessors. Raised in the shadow first of Nazism than of Stalinism, he was also vividly aware of the mortal threats which he believed the modern world posed to the Christian faith. And as Pope he believed he knew what to do about it: fiercely combating all temptations from the church's liberal wing to compromise with secularism; reinforcing the power and prestige of the hierarchy; and doing everything in his power to revive the sort of passionate participation of the masses in the life of the church that he was familiar with in Poland.
Hence the so-called "saint factory" which he set in motion, resulting in the canonisation of 482 men and women, ancient and modern, more than all his predecessors put together. Characteristic of John Paul was his decision to beatify, then, in 2002, canonise, the wildly popular southern Italian priest Padre Pio: a figure regarded with enormous diffidence within the Vatican on account of his numerous frailties and preposterous claims, but who for John Paul possessed a gift that trumped them all, the power to excite ardent belief in millions of simple Catholics.
The beatification of the Great Beatificator thus brings John Paul's pontifical journey full circle. But despite his enduring popularity, the decision to glorify him has attracted a host of criticism. For many Catholics, even among those who would not hesitate to call him "great", the process has been too fast. Too many unanswered questions and unresolved doubts linger from his long, turbulent and controversial reign.
He may have established formal ties between the Vatican and Israel, have been the first pope to enter a mosque, and have opposed the Iraq war; but last week the announcement by a group in Belgium drew attention to what many see as one of the great errors of the papacy – John Paul's failure to take any sort of decisive action against priests accused of sexually abusing children. Some 70 alleged victims of priestly sexual abuse announced that they will take the Vatican and Belgian church officials to court, claiming that they provided insufficient protection against sexually predatory clerics.
As a young priest in Poland, Karol Wojtyla (as he then was) became habituated to the frequently defamatory accusations against Catholic priests emanating from the Communist regime, which often included claims of sexual abuse. When he was Pope, similar sorts of accusations were made against priests in other countries – and against bishops and archbishops who, it was claimed, failed to act against the abusers – and it seems that he decided that the accusations were more of the same sort of destructive, defamatory attacks that the embattled Polish church had suffered under Communism.
Not only did he fail to take steps to end the abuse and bring the abusers to justice, but he often took the opposite course. Hans Hermann Groer, a cardinal from Vienna and a paedophile, long enjoyed John Paul's protection. When Cardinal Bernard Law, then Archbishop of Boston, was accused of covering up shockingly widespread abuse by priests in his diocese he was removed from his post, but the Pope indicated his support for Cardinal Law by giving him the job of Archpriest in Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the four most important churches in Rome.
Most notoriously of all, John Paul took no action at all against the Mexican priest Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, who was beset by allegations of sexual abuse for decades. It eventually emerged that he was a drug addict who had fathered several children with two different women and had also committed numerous acts of sexual abuse, some with his own children. But Degollado was an authoritarian conservative after John Paul's own stripe, and John Paul would hear no ill of him. It was left to his successor to force him to retire to "a life of penitence".
"In more than 25 years as the most powerful religious figure on the planet," commented Barbara Blaine, head of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (Snap), "John Paul II did almost nothing to safeguard kids." Because of this she urged the church to postpone the beatification, to "avoid rubbing more salt into these wounds".
The church brushed away her words, as it has brushed away so much else.