Vatican City, May 1 : Pope Benedict XVI bestowed the status of “blessed” on his predecessor John Paul II today in front of a cheering crowd of over a million people, putting the late pope on the path to sainthood.
A giant banner bearing a youthful portrait of the Polish pontiff was unveiled over the facade of Saint Peter's Basilica after Benedict pronounced the formula of beatification just six years after John Paul's death.
Eighty-six official delegations were also in attendance and pilgrims waved flags from around the world in the sun-drenched square, reprising the chant of “Santo Subito!” (Sainthood Now!) that they had shouted at his funeral.
The pope declared October 22 as a day for the veneration of John Paul II.
Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, the 50-year-old French nun who attributes her recovery from Parkison's disease to the miraculous intercession of the late pope, could be seen smiling and applauding at the emotional ceremony.
Simon-Pierre's recovery has been acknowledged as the miracle required to justify John Paul II's beatification after years of research by the Vatican.
A second proven miracle is now required for John Paul to be declared saint, and the Vatican is already sifting through hundreds of reported miracles.
Benedict defended his decision to fast-track John Paul's cause in his homily at the beatification mass and paid tribute to the late pope's “strength of a titan” in defending Christianity and fighting off Marxist ideology.
On a personal note, the pope said he himself had been inspired by his predecessor, particularly for his forbearance during years of ill health.
“His example of prayer continually impressed and edified me,” he said.
“He remained deeply united to God even amid the many demands of his ministry. Then too, there was his witness in suffering. The Lord gradually stripped him of everything, yet he remained a rock,” Benedict added.
Experts said the beatification could help the Vatican burnish an image badly tarnished by multiple paedophile priest scandals, but others have been critical of the speeding-up of a procedure that usually takes decades if not centuries.
John Paul's pontificate helped inspire youth groups and lay religious movements, but his critics have accused him of turning a blind eye to the child abuse scandals which first erupted in the United States in 2000.
Many agree however that it was a remarkable papacy in which John Paul survived an assassination attempt in 1981, built ties with Judaism and Islam and even apologised for the mistakes and sins of the Catholic Church.
John Paul was elected pope in 1978, becoming the first non-Italian pontiff in more than four centuries. He became known for his frequent trips and succeeded in giving new strength to the Church before illness sapped his energies.
He died on April 2, 2005, suffering from an acute case of Parkinson's. (AFP)