A vial of crimson blood and a cryptic Latin phrase marked the first step toward sainthood for the late John Paul II on a sunny May Day at Vatican City. Over a million pilgrims crammed into the cobbled square and surrounding streets, many having camped out all night to make sure not to miss the blessed event. Security was tight but spirits were high in a scene that was reminiscent of John Paul II’s funeral six years ago. “He was an inspiration to millions of people across the world, Catholic and non-Catholic,” Patrick Langrell, director of the Young Adult Outreach for the Archdiocese of New York, told The Daily Beast as he waited in line to get into the square. “He was a man of inspiration during a time when that was really difficult.”
The Vatican is hoping that their “rock star pope” will once again inspire a fractured congregation in a time of global despair. For weeks, those who feel he failed the church through the pedophile sex scandal voiced their disappointment at his fast-track to sainthood. Rod Pead, editor of the traditionalist Catholic magazine Christian Order, believes that the beatification is capitalizing on the Pope’s “celebrity status” and that his legendary charisma and achievements are not enough to elevate him to sainthood. He says that it is John Paul II’s popularity and the knock-down effect it has on the church as a whole and not his rectitude that is the driving force to santo subito. “By pushing it through at such scandalous speed they degrade and undermine the beatification process itself,” Pead told The Daily Beast. “Remember, out of more than 260 popes only 76 have ever been canonized and of those only three have been canonized in the last 700 years.”
But on Sunday, there were no protests in Rome and no vocal opposition in St. Peter’s Square. Instead the crowds sang and chanted under banners and flags of celebration. In the three-hour ceremony, John Paul II’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI paid homage to his friend, reminding the world of his famous words: “Do not be afraid.”
The beatification ceremony was the pinnacle point of a festive weekend that was as important to Catholics as the royal wedding was to royal lovers. The festivities kicked off Saturday night when nearly a quarter of a million pilgrims braved the rain to attend an atmospheric candle lit vigil in the ancient Circus Maximus at the base of the Palatine Hill in ancient Rome. The keynote speaker was Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, the French nun who theologians and the Vatican’s medical doctors say was miraculously cured of Parkinson’s Disease after she prayed to John Paul II. On Sunday morning, she carried his vial of blood in an ornate olive-branch style silver reliquary.
Outside the walls of Vatican City, enterprising souvenir sellers hocked John Paul II paraphernalia ranging from pins and statues to flags and T-shirts. The Vatican postal service set up several mobile units for those who wanted to mail letters postmarked with the Beatification weekend stamp. Volunteers handed out picnic packs, water and postcards and the Vatican gave all who attended a special apostolic blessing and plenary indulgence (the equivalent of going to confession).
John Paul II was exhumed in a private ceremony earlier in the week and moved from the crypt below St. Peter’s basilica to the main apse of the church. In April 2006, he was buried in a coffin made of wood covered by one of lead and encased in another made of wood, which was covered with a golden sheath for this weekend’s celebration. After the beatification, the church will remain open round the clock so pilgrims can pray in front of the remains of their beloved and now venerated pope. Then he will be moved to a new tomb in a chapel on the main floor. Sister Simon-Pierre’s miracle was one of two needed for full sainthood, but now that he is venerated, it will be much easier for the faithful to pray to him for divine intervention. If Sunday’s turnout of the faithful was any indication, it won’t take long for the second miracle. And no doubt it will come at just the right time for the Vatican, too.
Barbie Latza Nadeau, author of the Beast Book Angel Face, about Amanda Knox, has reported from Italy for Newsweek Magazine since 1997 and for The Daily Beast since 2009. She is a frequent contributor to CNN Traveller, Departures, Discovery and Grazia. She appears regularly on CNN, BBC and NPR.