VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI praised the "human and supernatural" qualities of John Paul II during a Mass on Wednesday marking the third anniversary of the Polish pontiff's death.
Benedict compared the suffering of his predecessor's last months to that of Christ on the cross. In the last years of John Paul's pontificate, Parkinson's disease slowly sapped the energy of the once-vigorous church leader, and in the end left him unable to speak. He was 84 when he died.
"Just as happened with Jesus, also for John Paul II; in the end, words gave way to the extreme sacrifice, and to the gift of self," Benedict, in red brocade robes, said during the 90-minute ceremony in St. Peter's Square.
Benedict concelebrated the Mass with members of the College of Cardinals, including the archbishop of Krakow, Poland, Stanislaw Dziwisz, the late pope's private secretary, who was at his side for almost 40 years.
Thousands of pilgrims and tourists — many from the late pontiff's homeland — packed the square, recalling the days after John Paul's death, when more than 2 million people lined up night and day to pay homage as his body lay in St. Peter's Basilica.
Benedict also underlined John Paul's "extraordinary faith" and said it allowed him to have an intimate and uninterrupted conversation with God.
"Among his human and supernatural qualities, he in fact had that of an exceptional spiritual and mystical sensitivity," the pope said during his homily.
Only a month after John Paul's death, Benedict put him on the fast track for sainthood, waiving the usual five years before a person's life and works can be examined for possible canonization. The process for beatification, the stepping stone to sainthood, is under way, and the required miracle, which must occur after a candidate's death, has been identified for examination by a team of church experts and doctors for its authenticity.
The possible miracle involves the cure of Parkinson's disease of a 47-year-old French nun who works in a maternity ward.
"You could see God in his face," Philip Christopher, an immigrant from Sri Lanka who cares for the aged, said of John Paul as he followed Wednesday's ceremony from the edge of the square on his way to work.
In Krakow, where Cardinal Karol Wojtyla served as archbishop before being elected pope, Polish faithful lit candles and gathered under the window where the late pontiff greeted young Poles during his visits to the city.