Pope Benedict beatifies John Paul before huge crowd


BEATIFICATION OF POPE JOHN PAUL II:IN A lavish three-hour service on the steps of St Peter’s Basilica, the Catholic Church yesterday honoured one of its most charismatic and evangelical sons when Pope Benedict XVI beatified his predecessor, John Paul II.

An estimated crowd of a million pilgrims, including more than 100,000 of the late pope’s Polish compatriots, attended a keenly felt, triumphalist Vatican ceremony.

In his homily, Pope Benedict immediately addressed one of the controversial elements of this beatification, namely the unprecedented brevity with which, just over six years after his death, John Paul II has been beatified: “Six years ago we gathered in this square to celebrate the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Our grief at his loss was deep, but even greater was our sense of an immense grace which embraced Rome and the whole world . . .

“For this reason, with all due respect for the church’s canonical norms, I wanted his cause of beatification to move forward with reasonable haste . . .”

Along one side of the Bernini colonnade in St Peter’s Square, 27 huge posters, each recalling a year in John Paul’s momentous 27-year pontificate, blew gently in the breeze.

Starting with his election as pope in 1978, the posters touched on many of the most remarkable moments of John Paul II’s pontificate – the Ali Agca assassination attempt in 1981; the day of peace in Assisi in 1987; a meeting with Mother Teresa in 1988; the 1989 Vatican meeting with USSR president Mikhail Gorbachev; his 2001 trip to the Holy Land; his last visit as a very sick man to Lourdes in 2003; and finally the late pontiff’s funeral in 2005.

Recalling that pontificate, Pope Benedict said John Paul had “opened up to Christ society, culture, political and economic systems”. He added: “By his witness of faith, love and apostolic courage, accompanied by great human charisma, this exemplary son of Poland helped believers throughout the world not to be afraid to be called Christian, to belong to the church, to speak of the Gospel.”

Pope Benedict, who was appointed prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by John Paul II in 1982 and who was arguably John Paul’s closest adviser for more than 20 years, touched on his own relationship with the late pope when saying: “Finally, on a more personal note, I would like to thank God for the gift of having worked for many years with Blessed John Paul II. I had known him earlier and had esteemed him, but for 23 years . . . I was at his side and came to revere him all the more.”

At the end of the ceremony, Pope Benedict went back into the basilica to pray at the foot of John Paul’s coffin which, on Friday, had been exhumed from the Vatican crypt where it has rested since 2005.

With the coffin moved to the main altar in St Peter’s in order to afford pilgrims the chance to file past and pay their respects, the basilica was scheduled to remain open until five this morning so as to accommodate all the pilgrims.

Controversy was generated by the presence among the 16 heads of state in St Peter’s Square of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe who, for the fourth time in recent years, defied an EU travel ban to attend an event in Rome.

Holy See sources, while expressing embarrassment at the presence of Mr Mugabe, pointed out that Zimbabwe has diplomatic relations with the Holy See and as such is entitled to send whomever it pleases to represent it.

Among the eight heads of government was Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is due in court in Milan this morning for a hearing of the Mediatrade fraud trial.

In an interview with Italian state broadcaster RAI, Mr Berlusconi yesterday said his governments had always enjoyed excellent relations with the Holy See, in full “respect for the values of this, our tradition – the values of life, marriage and the family”.

Representing Ireland yesterday was Government Chief Whip Paul Keogh, while the Irish church delegation was led by Cardinal Desmond Connell and the Archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal Seán Brady.

Speaking to The Irish Times, Cardinal Brady said that criticism of John Paul’s handling of the clerical sex abuse crisis during the latter years of his pontificate was less than fair since he had relied heavily on the advice of his closest advisers. He added: “I prefer to remember him as the pope who came to Ireland on only the third trip of his pontificate in recognition of the suffering of the Irish church . . .”