VATICAN CITY – During Pope John Paul II’s 2005 funeral, crowds at the Vatican shouted for him to be made a saint immediately. “Santo subito!” they chanted for one of the most important and beloved pontiffs in history.
His successor heard their call. On Friday, in the fastest process on record, Pope Benedict XVI set May 1 as the date for John Paul’s beatification – a key step toward Catholicism’s highest honor and a major morale boost for a church reeling from the clerical sex abuse scandal.
He set the date after declaring that a French nun’s recovery from Parkinson’s disease was the miracle needed for John Paul to be beatified. A second miracle is needed to be canonized a saint.
Benedict himself will preside at the May 1 ceremony, which is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to Rome for a precedent-setting Mass: Never before has a pope beatified his immediate predecessor.
Although the numbers may not reach the 3 million who flocked here for John Paul’s funeral, religious tour operators in his native Poland were already preparing to bus and fly in the faithful to celebrate a man many considered a saint while he was alive.
“We have waited a long time and this is a great day for us,” said Mayor Ewa Filipiak, of John Paul’s hometown of Wadowice, where the faithful lit candles Friday and prayed at a chapel in the town church dedicated to John Paul.
The Rev. Pawel Danek, who runs a museum in John Paul’s family home, said Benedict had listened to the prayers.
“The Holy Father has confirmed what we all felt somehow,” he said. “For us, John Paul II’s holiness is obvious.”
Benedict put John Paul on the fast track to possible sainthood just weeks after he died, waiving the typical five-year waiting period before the process could begin. But he insisted that the investigation into John Paul’s life be thorough to avoid any doubts about his virtues.
The beatification will nevertheless be the fastest on record, coming a little more than six years after his death and beating out Mother Teresa’s then-record beatification in 2003 by a few days.