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A saint?

April 30, 2011

After more than 25 years as the leader of the Catholic Church, many of Pope John Paul II's followers want to see him made a saint. As the deceased pontiff comes closer to canonization, others are criticizing the Vatican.

John Paul II
Critics challenge the legacy of the late pope John Paul IIImage: AP

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims travelled to Rome this weekend for the beatification of Pope John Paul II, whose body was exhumed Friday in preparation for the event.

Leaders and delegates from around the world also headed to the Eternal City to look on as the Vatican conveys the title of "blessed" upon the late pontiff on Sunday.

Yet some voices from within the Church are calling the move to sanctify the former pope a mistake.

Thousands flocking to Rome

In John Paul's beatification ceremony - the third of four steps to canonization - the Catholic Church will recognize John Paul as being in Heaven and as able to intercede on behalf of those who pray to him.

Michelangelo statue of the dead body of Christ lying in the lap of his mother
John Paul II will be reburied near Michelangelo's sculptural masterpieceImage: Picture-Alliance / Photoshot

Some 500,000 people in total are expected to attend the Vatican ceremony, which will be relayed on giant screens around the Holy City. Of them, around 300,000 pilgrims are expected to come from outside the Italian capital.

Sunday's ceremony was preceded on Saturday by a prayer vigil at the Circus Maximus, an ancient Roman stadium, where an estimated 200,000 pilgrims lit candles.

46-year-old Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, the French nun whose healing was recognized by the Vatican as the miracle needed for John Paul's beatification told pilgrims at the vigil how she attributed her inexplicable recovery from Parkinson's to the intercession of John Paul.

After the vigil, eight central Rome churches were to remain open all night for pilgrims to pray.

The Pope 'turned a blind eye'

While half a million are expected to attend the event, a support group for victims of pedophile priests on Friday urged the Vatican to slow down its rush to sanctify the late pope.

"The Church hierarchy can avoid rubbing more salt into these wounds by slowing down their hasty drive to confer sainthood on the pontiff," said Barbara Blaine, head of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) group.

"In more than 25 years as the most powerful religious figure on the planet, John Paul II did almost nothing to safeguard kids," she said.

Another critic of the pope, the Swiss theologian Hans Küng said that John Paul II was not a good role model for Catholics, saying he was "intolerant and opposed to dialog."

In 1979, Küng was stripped of his right to teach in the Catholic Church due to his questioning of the pope's infallibility.

Controversial guest

Of the world leaders to visit the Vatican for the event, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe will likely draw the most attention.

Mugabe, who has been widely criticized for human rights abuses in his country, is banned from travel to the European Union, but the Vatican, unlike Italy, is not a member of the bloc.

Pope John Paul II meets the Dalai Lama
John Paul II was known for increasing contact with other religionsImage: AP

The Zimbabwean president will travel through Rome; however, following pacts between Italy and the Vatican, people heading to the Vatican via Italy cannot be impeded.

Other leaders expected to attend include Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, Belgium's King Albert II, Mexican President Felipe Calderon and French Prime Minister Francois Fillon.

After the Mass, the faithful will be able to file past John Paul's casket, which will be on display inside St. Peter's Basilica and will later be given a new burial spot in a crypt near Michelangelo's Pieta.

Becoming a saint

The canonization process of the former pope was set in motion by current Pope Benedict XVI shortly after John Paul's death in 2005. In order for the Vatican to declare John Paul a saint, they must be convinced that he was worked at least two miracles.

In addition to the Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, thousands have sent their stories to the Vatican describing how they were helped by prayers to the late pope. Of these, 270 testimonies of presumed miracles have been selected to be investigated.

An unlikely relic

Pilgrims to Rome this weekend will also have the chance to see the former pope's bloodied vest from when he was shot in a 1981 assassination attempt.

"It's an incredibly moving relic: a symbol of faith but also of the pain, fear and suffering in those moments," said Sister Beatrice from the convent where the previously little-known item has been kept hidden.

A worker adjusts a poster showing a late pope John Paul II in his hometown of Wadowice near Krakow
The deceased pope is perhaps best-loved in his native PolandImage: AP

The bloodied garment inscribed with the initials "J. P." was cut off the wounded pontiff in a hospital emergency room and cast aside as doctors rushed to save his life, Beatrice said.

It was picked up by a nurse, Anna Stanghellini, who stashed it in the back of a cupboard at her home, keeping it secret for years before she revealed it to Sister Beatrice in 2000.

The former pope, who survived the murder attempt, was known to his followers as a builder of bridges; he was considered by many instrumental to the establishment of democracy in his native Poland, as well as improving the Church's ties with Jews and Muslims.

Author: David Levitz (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

Editor: Andreas Illmer

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