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John Paul II on way to sainthood
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John Paul II on way to sainthood

Late pope beatified in biggest event at Vatican since his funeral in 2005; search on for second miracle.

Pope John Paul II. Getty Images

The late pope John Paul II was beatified in a three-hour ceremony on Sunday in the biggest event hosted by the Vatican since two million people attended his funeral six years ago.

An estimated 1.5 million people flocked to St Peter’s Square to watch Pope Benedict XVI declare his Polish predecessor "blessed" in a display of religious pomp watched on television and the Internet by millions around the world.

The Pope approved the beatification, the fastest in modern times, after Vatican experts ruled that the "miraculous" recovery of a French nun from Parkinson’s disease was attributable to John Paul’s intercession from beyond the grave. The search is now on for a second miracle that, after scrutiny by doctors and Vatican theologians, would enable the Polish pontiff to be canonized.

John Paul’s millions of admirers remember him for his charisma, his survival of an assassination attempt in 1981 and his pivotal role in challenging Communism during the Cold War.

In an apparent reference to his defiance of Communist regimes and his support for the Polish Solidarity movement, Pope Benedict said his predecessor "turned back with the strength of a titan . a tide that appeared irreversible."

In another tribute, Cardinal Agostino Vallini, the vicar general of the diocese of Rome, told the massed crowds that John Paul was "feared by those who regarded him as an adversary."

The ceremony, which began under grey skies but ended in a blaze of sunshine, was attended by cardinals, the representatives of five royal families, and 16 heads of state.

They included Robert Mugabe, the leader of Zimbabwe, who despite being subject to international travel bans was given permission by the European Union to fly to Rome to attend. A Vatican spokesman said Mugabe could not be prevented from attending the ceremony because the Holy See had diplomatic relations with Zimbabwe.

The beatification was seen as an opportunity to repair the Church’s image and raise morale among believers.

Pilgrims from around the world, including a huge contingent of Poles from the late pope’s homeland, waved flags and cheered throughout the ceremony, with some breaking down in tears of joy.

A huge tapestry of a smiling John Paul was unveiled at the front of St Peter’s Basilica as Pope Benedict received a silver reliquary holding a vial of the late pope’s blood. It will remain in the Vatican and become an object of veneration for the faithful.

Hundreds of thousands of Catholics filed into St Peter’s at the end of the ceremony to pay their respects before John Paul’s simple wooden coffin. The first non-Italian pope in 455 years when he was elected in 1978, John Paul II brought new vitality to the Vatican but alienated many Roman Catholics with his conservative social views on homosexuality, birth control, euthanasia and AIDS.

There were also uncomfortable questions about his alleged failure to tackle the issue of pedophile priests, a scandal that has deepened under Pope Benedict’s six year papacy.

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