John Paul II's Beatification A Step Closer To Sainthood

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Pope John Paul II moved closer to sainthood Sunday in a solemn ceremony at the Vatican celebrated by his successor, Pope Benedict XVI. As many as a million people came to Rome to take part in the event, the biggest since John Paul's funeral six years ago. Host Liane Hansen talks to NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome about the beatification and the controversy surrounding it.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Pope John Paul II moved one step closer to sainthood today in a solemn ceremony at the Vatican celebrated by his successor, Pope Benedict XVI. As many as a million people came to Rome to take part in the event the biggest since John Paul's funeral six years ago. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us on the line from Rome. And Sylvia, describe the ceremony.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Well, it was very solemn, and Benedict was visibly moved throughout. In his homily, he spoke of what he called John Paul's strong and generous apostolic faith. And he repeated a phrase of John Paul's, which perhaps most symbolized his papacy: Do not be afraid; open wide the doors to Christ. Benedict said that concept restored to Christianity its true face as a religion of hope, and helped defeat Marxist ideology.

Standing on the altar was also Sister Marie Simon-Pierre Normand, whose inexplicable cure from Parkinson's was decreed the miracle needed to beatify John Paul.

But you know, in some ways, the ceremony contrasted sharply with John Paul's style. Whatever you think about his dogma, he was open to local traditions and modern music in his big, open-air masses. But today's liturgy reflected more the style of his successor. It was full of somber Gregorian chants, and much of it was in Latin - a ritual less suited, I think, to outdoor ceremonies, not in tune with the age of most of the pilgrims who came here today.

HANSEN: Well, talk about those - almost a million. What was it like for them?

POGGIOLI: Well, first of all, Rome came to a standstill - there were so many of them. The whole city, and the area around the Vatican, were sealed off to traffic. It was an atmosphere very similar to John Paul's funeral. Many, many young people with backpacks, sleeping bags and guitars - they came from all over the world. They're part of the generation of young Catholics who were energized by the globe-trotting, spiritual pastor and who, you know, flocked to John Paul's outdoor masses as if they were rock concerts.

Just like six years ago at the funeral, many of the young faithful had posters printed with the words Santo Subito, Sainthood Now - the chant that helped convince Benedict to suspend the traditional five-year waiting period before beginning the beatification process.

HANSEN: The Catholic Church has been buffeted by scandals. The beatification is seen as a morale booster for the church. Remind us, what were some of the criticisms of John Paul's papacy?

POGGIOLI: Well, you know, one of his major critics, the Swiss theologian Hans Kung, described his papacy as the most contradictory in modern times. John Paul took the church out of the Vatican, and he traveled all over the world. He opened up a dialogue with other world religions - particularly with Judaism and Islam - and he made the institution of the Catholic Church more cosmopolitan than it had ever been in centuries.

He was media savvy and embraced 21st century technologies. One of the major landmarks of his papacy was asking forgiveness for the sins and errors of the church over the centuries. And yet, many critics say, he was unable to look into the contemporary church itself and modernize it. He was a strong defender of orthodoxy. He cracked down against dissident theologians and proponents of a bigger role for women and lay people in the church.

And most of all, he's accused of having failed to tackle the clerical sex abuse crisis, the biggest crisis in modern church history - which has contributed to the exodus from the church, especially in Europe. John Paul was dubbed the People's Pope and was able to fill squares with hundreds of thousands of people. But under his watch, churches became more and more empty.

HANSEN: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. Thank you, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Liane.

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