VATICAN CITY – Tens of thousands of people clutching candles filled St. Peter's Square on Sunday to mark the first anniversary of Pope John Paul II's death with a prayer vigil that culminated with a blessing by the current pontiff.
Polish flags fluttered in the cool evening breeze, the candles twinkled and a choir sang hymns during the vigil, which ended with the blessing by Benedict XVI at 9:37 p.m. — the moment the Polish pope died a year ago.
The scene resembled that before John Paul passing, when pilgrims from around the world prayed beneath his studio apartment windows.
"He continues to be present in our minds and our hearts; he continues to communicate his love for God and his love for man, he continues to arouse in everyone, especially the young, enthusiasm for goodness and the courage to follow Jesus and his teachings," Benedict told the crowd, which he joined in reciting the rosary from one of the windows.
In his message, which was broadcast via videolink to Krakow, Poland, Benedict recalled his predecessor's suffering, evident during the final days and weeks when John Paul was unable to speak and managed only to bless the faithful weakly with his hand.
City officials said they had expected between 100,000 and 150,000 people to attend the vigil, some 10,000 of them from John Paul's native Poland, where anniversary commemorations also were held Sunday.
John Paul was remembered from Mexico City to India as an advocate for the poor who helped fell communism. Around the world, Roman Catholics praised his legacy and called for his beatification.
"His illness, which he faced with courage, made us all aware of human pain, of every physical and spiritual pain; he gave suffering dignity and value, showing that man isn't just worthy because of his efficiency and how he appears, but because of himself, because he is created and loved by God," Benedict said.
Polish Catholics filled churches Sunday and voiced hopes for a quick beatification of their beloved native son.
In Krakow, thousands gathered with candles and flowers at the Archbishop's Palace to await the moment of John Paul's death. Thousands of believers flocked to John Paul's hometown of nearby Wadowice, where an open-air Mass in the town at noon drew an estimated 8,000 people.
"We came to pray for his quick beatification and also to pray to him to protect our family," said Wojciech Gladysz, 33, a gardener who traveled 220 miles from Warsaw with his wife and three children.
Tens of thousands filled Mexico City's Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the most important Catholic shrine in the Americas.
Many of the faithful used mirrors to reflect the morning sun to the heavens as a way of sending the late pope their love. Others carried framed photographs covered in ribbons. One group held a banner reading "Juan Pablo II, God's athlete."
John Paul visited Mexico five times and was received by wildly enthusiastic crowds on each occasion. He called the country "Mexico, ever faithful."
At a morning Mass in Lagiewniki, Poland, near Krakow, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, John Paul's longtime personal secretary, delivered a homily dedicated to John Paul's swift beatification and sainthood.
"He contributed to the fundamental transformation of the world," said Dziwisz, now the archbishop of Krakow.
Poles credit John Paul with inspiring the pro-democracy Solidarity movement in the 1980s, which sparked protests that helped bring down the communist regime in 1989.
In India, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, and Sister Nirmala, the successor of Mother Teresa, joined thousands of Indians who paid tribute to John Paul, describing him as an embodiment of peace.
Benedict said John Paul had left a profound mark on the history of the church and all of humanity, ushering the church into the third millennium, visiting the world and meeting with heads of state, young people, believers and nonbelievers alike.
In recent days, pilgrims have been lining up to visit John Paul's grave in a grotto underneath the basilica to pray and leave notes and flowers.
Souvenir shops around the Vatican, which over the past year have given equal space to Benedict and John Paul, by Sunday had reverted to the time of John Paul's pontificate, with storefronts filled exclusively with John Paul key chains, calendars and snow globes.
On Monday, Benedict was to celebrate a Mass in the square attended by Dziwisz. The Vatican's final anniversary event, dedicated to young people, was scheduled for Thursday afternoon in St. Peter's Square.