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Pope John Paul II moves a step closer to sainthood

Pope John Paul IIReuters

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.

It is not without controversy, however. While John Paul himself was never accused of improprieties, he has long been accused of responding slowly when the sex abuse scandal erupted in the United States in 2002. Many of the thousands of cases that emerged last year involved crimes and cover-ups during his 26-year papacy.

Critics have faulted John Paul's overriding concern with preserving the rights of accused priests, often at the expense of victims — a concern formed in part by his experiences in communist-controlled Poland, where priests were often accused of trumped-up charges.

The most damaging case linked to John Paul concerned the Rev. Marciel Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a conservative order beloved by the late pope because of its orthodoxy, fundraising prowess and ability to attract priestly vocations.

Allegations that Maciel had raped young seminarians were brought by the victims to the Vatican in the 1990s, but under apparent orders from John Paul's No. 2, a canonical trial was shelved.

Only after Benedict became pope was Maciel sanctioned in 2006; Maciel died two years later.

Despite the Maciel case, Vatican officials have said there was nothing in John Paul's record that put his beatification into question. Vatican watchers noted on Friday that beatification isn't a "score card" on how John Paul administered the church but rather a recognition that he led a saintly life.

Carl Anderson, head of the Knights of Columbus, one of the world's largest Catholic fraternal service organizations, said John Paul's life was a model of "love, respect and forgiveness for all."

"We saw this in the way he reached out to the poor, the neglected, those of other faiths, even the man who shot him," Anderson said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "He did all of this despite being so personally affected by events of the bloodiest century in history."

The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano described his saintliness in these terms Friday: "A passionate witness to Christ from his childhood to his last breath."

The last remaining hurdle before beatification concerned Benedict's approval that the cure of the French nun, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, was a miracle due to the intercession of the late pope.

The nun has said she felt reborn when she woke up two months after John Paul died, cured of the disease that had made walking, writing and driving a car nearly impossible. She and her fellow sisters of the Congregation of Little Sisters of Catholic Maternity Wards had prayed to John Paul.

On Friday, Simon-Pierre said John Paul was and continues to be an inspiration to her because of his defense of the unborn and because they both suffered from Parkinson's.

John Paul "hasn't left me. He won't leave me until the end of my life," she told French Catholic TV station KTO and Italy's state-run RAI television.

Wearing a white habit and wire-rimmed glasses, she appeared in good health and showed no signs of tremors or slurred speech, common symptoms of Parkinson's.

"John Paul II did everything he could for life, to defend life," she said. "He was very close to the smallest and weakest. How many times did we see him approach a handicapped person, a sick person?"

Last year, there were some questions about whether the nun's original diagnosis was correct. But in a statement Friday, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints said Vatican-appointed doctors had "scrupulously" studied the case and determined that her cure had no scientific explanation.

Once he is beatified, John Paul will be given the title "blessed" and can be publicly venerated, or worshipped. Many people, especially in Poland, already venerate him privately, but the ceremony will allow Catholics to publicly worship him.

The Vatican said John Paul's entombed remains, currently in the grotto underneath St. Peter's Basilica, will be moved upstairs to a chapel just inside a main entrance for easier access by the public.

Visitors are expected in droves. Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno had a previously scheduled audience with Benedict on Friday and said he had assured the pope that the city was up to the task.

Born as Karol Wojtyla in 1920, John Paul was the youngest pope in 125 years and the first non-Italian in 455 years when he was elected pontiff in 1978.

He brought a new vitality to the Vatican, and quickly became the most accessible modern pope, sitting down for meals with factory workers, skiing and wading into crowds to embrace the faithful.

His Polish roots nourished a doctrinal conservatism — opposition to contraception, euthanasia, abortion and female priests — that rankled liberal Catholics in the United States and Western Europe.

But his common touch also made him a crowd-pleasing, globe-trotting superstar whose papacy carried the Catholic Church into Christianity's third millennium and emboldened eastern Europeans to bring down the communist system.

He survived an assassination attempt in St. Peter's Square in 1981 — and promptly forgave the Turk who had shot him.

After suffering for years from the effects of Parkinson's, he died in his Vatican apartment on April 2, 2005. He was 84.

Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, John Paul's most trusted friend and aide who was at his bedside that night, gave thanks Friday from Krakow, where he is archbishop.

"We are happy that this process came to an end, that what people asked for — "Santo subito" — was fulfilled," Dziwisz said. "I express great joy on behalf of the entire diocese of Krakow — and I think I am also authorized to express this on behalf of all of Poland."

The selection of May 1 — the first Sunday after Easter — as the beatification date is significant. It's the Feast of Divine Mercy, which John Paul himself inaugurated in 2000 after canonizing Sister Faustina Kowalska, a 20th century Polish mystic to whom he was particularly devoted.

It's also May Day or labor day, what was once a major communist holiday. While there was some irony in the date, few in Poland noted it and Poles today celebrate May 1 as a welcome and uncontroversial holiday like the rest of Europe.

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Associated Press writers Vanessa Gera in Warsaw and Krzysztof Kopacz in Wadowice, Poland, and Angela Doland in Paris contributed to this report.