Vatican City: The late Pope John Paul moved a major step closer to Roman Catholic sainthood on Sunday at a joyous ceremony that drew the largest crowd to Rome since his funeral six years ago.
"From now on Pope John Paul shall be called 'blessed'", Pope Benedict solemnly proclaimed in Latin, establishing that his predecessor's feast day would be on October 22, the day of the inauguration of John Paul's history-making pontificate in 1978.
To the cheers of hundreds of thousands of people, a tapestry showing a smiling John Paul was unveiled seconds after Benedict, wearing resplendent white and gold robes, read the solemn beatification proclamation.
St Peter's Square was jam packed and the crowd stretched as far back as the Tiber River, more than half a kilometre away. The crowd of devotees, many carrying national flags and singing songs, had moved towards the Vatican area from all directions from before dawn to get a good spot for the Mass. Many camped out during the night in the square, which was bedecked with posters and photos of the late pope and posters of one of his most famous sayings "Do not be afraid!"
Many were from the late pope's native Poland. Dozens of red and white Polish flags bobbed above the crowd and a cheer went up when a group of Poles released a large banner reading "Thank You, God" held aloft by balloons.
"We were at the funeral and we just had to be here to see him beatified," said Janusc Skibinski, 40, who drove 29 hours with his family from their home near the border with Belarus.
A place of honour was reserved for Sister Marie Simon-Pierre Normand, a French nun who suffered from Parkinson's disease but whose inexplicable cure has been attributed to John Paul's intercession with God to perform a miracle, thus permitting the beatification to go ahead.
The Vatican will have to attribute another miracle to John Paul's intercession after the beatification in order for him to be declared a saint.
The pope was beatified on the day the Church celebrates the movable Feast of Divine Mercy, which this year happens to fall on May 1, the most important feast in the communist world.
The coincidence is ironic, given that many believe the pope played a key role in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.
Some 90 official delegations from around the world, including members of five European royal families and 16 heads of state, will attend the beatification.
They included Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who has been widely criticised for human rights abuses in his country. Mugabe is banned from travelling to the European Union, but the Vatican -- a sovereign state -- is not a member of the bloc.
Pope John Paul's coffin was exhumed on Friday from the crypts below St Peter's Basilica and will be placed in front of the main altar. It will remain there and the basilica will remain open until all visitors who want to view it have done so.
It will then be moved to a new crypt under an altar in a side chapel near Michelangelo's statue of the Pieta. The marble slab that covered his first burial place will be sent to Poland.
John Paul's beatification has set a new speed record for modern times, taking place six years and one month after his death on April 2, 2005. While the overwhelming number of Catholics welcome it, a minority are opposed, with some saying it happened too fast.
Liberals in the church say John Paul was too harsh with theological dissenters who wanted to help the poor, particularly in Latin America. Some say John Paul should be held ultimately responsible for the sexual abuse scandals because they occurred or came to light when he was in charge.
Ultra-Conservatives say he was too open towards other religions and that he allowed the liturgy to be "infected" by local cultures, such as African dancing, on his trips abroad.
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