Pope John Paul II “restored to Christianity its true face as a religion of hope,” Pope Benedict XVI said at the May 1 beatification of the Polish Pontiff.
Well over one million people crowded into St. Peter’s Square, and spilled over into the surrounding streets of Rome, for the May 1 beatification. Six years earlier, an even larger congregation had broken into shouts of Santo subito! at the conclusion of the funeral for the beloved Pope. Now the people burst into warm applause as Pope Benedict recited the formula of beatification, and a huge tapestry depicting Blessed John Paul II was unfurled from the balcony of the Vatican basilica.
In his homily Pope Benedict alluded to the popular demands for the prompt beatification of his predecessor. At the time of the funeral in April 2005, he said, “we perceived the fragrance of his sanctity, and in any number of ways God’s People showed their veneration for him.” It was because of that clear popular sense of veneration, the Pope said, “with all due respect for the Church’s canonical norms, I wanted his cause of beatification to move forward with reasonable haste.”
An appropriate date
Pope Benedict went on to note that the date of the beatification provided an ideal time for honoring John Paul II. May 1, he pointed out, is the first day of the month dedicated to the Virgin Mary, to whom the late Pontiff had such a deep devotion. On the ordinary liturgical calendar it is also the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, and thus recalls not only the early years of Karol Wojtyla as a manual laborer in wartime Poland, but also the efforts of the Pope to promote greater understanding of the dignity of human labor. And in 2011, May 1 was the Second Sunday of Easter, the feast of Divine Mercy—a feast that Pope John Paul II had proclaimed for the universal Church. As a final indication that the date was unusually appropriate, Pope Benedict reminded the congregation that his predecessor had died on the eve of the feast of Divine Mercy in 2005, shortly after the singing of Vespers for the feast.
The Vatican reported that 87 countries sent formal delegations to attend the beatification. There were 16 heads of state in attendance, including the presidents of Poland and Italy, and seven prime ministers. The hotels of Rome were almost completely booked for the weekend of the beatification, with some hotels commanding prices more than double their usual rates. Church-run hostels were also full, and hundreds of pilgrims apparently spent Saturday night on the streets in Rome, waiting for the earliest opportunity to claim a spot in St. Peter’s Square when it opened early Sunday morning. For the tens of thousands of people who could not squeeze into St. Peter’s Square, giant television screens were set up at the Circus Maximus and at other public places around Rome.
The Saturday-evening vigil
The Circus Maximus had been the scene of the first major public event celebrating the beatification, on Saturday evening, April 30. About 200,000 people participated in a vigil of music, testimony, and prayer honoring John Paul II. Interspersed with hymns and poetry, and videos recalling different aspects of the life of John Paul II, the crowd heard from several speakers whose lives were entwined with the life of the late Pontiff.
Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the former director of the Vatican press office, remarked that in beatifying John Paul II, the Church would not be making him a saint, but acknowledging his sanctity, since “one is a saint in life, or never will be.” The longtime papal spokesman said that he had an indelible memory of the late Pope’s “respect for the transcendent character of the person, who is at risk of being treated as a thing, as an object.” Navarro-Valls said: “And this respect is something that, once experienced alongside someone like him, one can never forget.” Navarro-Valls went on to illustrate the late Pope’s dedication to other people, reporting that Pope John Paul II regularly received requests for prayers from all over the world. “I saw him on his knees for hours in his chapel with these messages in his hands,” he said.
Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, the French nun whose miraculous cure from Parkinson’s disease cleared the way for the beatification, was the next featured speaker. She told the crowd that she had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease—the same malady that had ravaged John Paul II—in 2001. As the symptoms became more intense, on June 2, 2005 she told her superior that she was too exhausted to continue work. The entire religious community prayed for a cure, through the intercession of the recently deceased Pope. On the night of June 3, Sister Simon-Pierre said, she woke suddenly and went to the chapel to pray. “A great peace came over me, a sense of well-being,” she recalled. Gradually she became aware that she was able to walk freely, and an arm that had been effectively paralyzed was now working normally. From that time forward, she said, she has lived a normal life, without medical treatment for the condition that had threatened her life. Sister Simon-Pierre said that she was grateful for the cure and delighted that John Paul II could be honored “so that life might be respected and that all who work in service of life might be fortified.”
The next testimony at the Circus Maximus came from Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz of Krakow, who had served for years as the private secretary to Cardinal Wojtyla and continued in that capacity after the Polish prelate became John Paul II. Cardinal Dziwisz offered a different perspective on the man he had served, highlighting the serenity that John Paul II displayed: “To be with John Paul II meant to love his silence.” The Polish cardinal told the crowd that while the beloved Pontiff had been taken from the world by death, he is “now restored to us” by the beatification, since the faithful can seek his intercession.
Cardinal Agostino Vallini, the vicar of the Rome diocese, remarked that the Polish Pope had been “witness to the tragic age of big ideologies, totalitarian regimes, and from their passing John Paul II embraced the harsh suffering, marked by tension and contradictions, of the transition of the modern age toward a new phase of history.”
The crowd at the Circus Maximus then joined in reciting the Rosary, using the Luminous Mysteries bequeathed to the Church by John Paul II. During this phase of the evening’s ceremony, the group in Rome was linked by video feeds to crowds gathered at five Marian sanctuaries around the world: in Lagiewniki, Poland; Bugando, Tanzania; Hariss, Lebanon; Guadalupe, Mexico; and Fatima, Portugal. Each of the groups at these shrines was assigned a decade of the Rosary, for an intention that had been central to the prayers of John Paul II. Before each decade, the crowd saw videos of the late Pope, speaking about these intentions.
The evening’s formal program concluded with another video message, this time from Pope Benedict XVI. The Holy Father closed the vigil with a blessing, and a prayer to the Virgin Mary: “Help us always to account for the hope that is in us, with trust in the goodness of humanity created by God in his image and in the Father’s love.”
However, even after the crowd left the Circus Maximus, the prayer surrounding the beatification ceremonies continued. Scores of young volunteers from the Rome diocese patrolled the streets of the city, urging pilgrims to join in Eucharistic adoration at any one of eight churches that were opened all night for that purpose. Priests were also available to hear confessions at those churches late into the night.
On Sunday morning, St. Peter’s Square was packed by nine o’clock, when the Divine Mercy devotions were scheduled. At 10 o’clock, Pope Benedict presided as Mass was celebrated. Following the penitential rite, Cardinal Vallini—joined by Msgr. Slawomir Oder, the postulator for the late Pope’s cause—formally asked the Pontiff to proceed with the beatification. Cardinal Vallini then read a brief biography of John Paul II, and the stage was set for the act of beatification.
“The longed-for day has come,” said Pope Benedict. “It came quickly because this was pleasing to the Lord. John Paul II is blessed.”
In his homily, Pope Benedict drew attention to several salient aspects of his predecessor’s spirituality and his teaching. He mentioned the late Pope’s motto, “Totus tuus,” which was “drawn from the well-known words of St. Louis Marie Gignion de Montfort in which Karol Wojtyla found a guiding light for his life,” and a key to his Marian devotion.
Pope Benedict also cited the words of another Polish prelate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, who said at the conclave of October 1978: “The task of the new Pope will be to lead the Church into the third millennium.” Pope John Paul II took up that challenge with vigor, Benedict XVI observed, and devoted much of his papal ministry to the preparation for, and celebration of, the Jubilee Year 2000.
Another key to the understanding of John Paul II, Pope Benedict said, is the recognition that “he brought with him a deep understanding of the difference between Marxism and Christianity, based on their respective visions of man.” Pope John Paul lived to see the collapse of Soviet Communism, the Pope said, and he strove to place Christian faith in the vacuum left by the downfall of atheistic materialism. “He rightly reclaimed for Christianity that impulse of hope which had in some sense faltered before Marxism and the ideology of progress.”
Later, after the conclusion of the Mass, Pope Benedict spoke again about the example set by his predecessor. At his Regina Coeli audience, Pope Benedict prayed in French that “the life and work of Blessed John Paul II be the source of a renewed dedication to the service of all persons and all humankind.” He offered similar prayers in English, Spanish, and Polish, before closing in Italian with a word of thanks to all those involved in planning the beatification ceremonies.
When he finally left St. Peter’s Square at the end of the lengthy Sunday ceremony, Pope Benedict stopped to pray in the Vatican basilica at the coffin of Blessed John Paul II, which had been placed in front of the Altar of Confession. During the afternoon and late into Sunday night, an estimated 250,000 people filed past the coffin to venerate the remains of the newly beatified Pontiff.
The remains of John Paul II had been moved from their original burial place in the grotto of St. Peter’s Basilica on Friday, and the coffin was exposed for veneration by pilgrims through Saturday evening. After another full day of veneration that began following the beatification ceremony and lasted until Monday evening, the coffin was moved again, to a new resting place in the St. Sebastian chapel, near the front door of the Vatican basilica, close to Michelangelo’s Pieta.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone presided at a Mass of Thanksgiving in St. Peter’s Square on May 2, concluding the formal schedule of events for the beatification.
“Today we thank the Lord for giving us a shepherd like Pope John Paul II,” Cardinal Bertone said at the Monday-morning Mass. The Vatican Secretary of State described Blessed John Paul II as a pastor “who knew how to read the signs of God’s presence in human history.”
About 60,000 people attended the Mass of Thanksgiving, at which 150 bishops concelebrated. Prior to the Eucharistic liturgy, poems by the late Pontiff were read, interspersed with musical performances by the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and Cardinal Dziwisz addressed the congregation.