ROME, May 1, 2011 — -- Pope Benedict XVI beatified Pope John Paul II Sunday at St. Peter's Square before an estimated one million people, declaring the Polish-born pope to be "Blessed" and putting him one step from sainthood.
"He restored to Christianity its true face as a religion of hope," Benedict said in his homily.
Among the faithful was a French nun, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, who says she was cured of Parkinson's disease after praying to the pope only months after his death from complications of the same disease. She carried a vial of his blood extracted during his long illness.
The Vatican certified Sister Pierre's cure as a "miracle" and advanced John Paul's cause. Beatification is defined as one being "blessed," and is the first step in the usually lengthy process of being declared a saint by the Church. A second miracle tied to John Paul is needed before his canonization.
Posters honoring John Paul's life were put up all over Rome ahead of the ceremony. Large television screens showing images of Pope John Paul II were erected along the Via della Conciliazione, the Roman street that leads to St. Peter's Basilica.
Souvenir shops across the capital city hawked papal memorabilia, ranging from holy cards to calendars, giant scarves and even bobble-head dolls of the late pope.
As pope, John Paul II beatified more people than the total of all other popes since the 15th century reign of Pope Sixtus VI, leading some critics to speculate that he was rapidly pushed to sainthood. Some say that Pope John Paul II was on the "fast track" to sainthood shortly after his death in 2005.
Joe Lynaugh of the Catholic movement, Call to Action, opposes John Paul II's potential canonization.
"This will just go down as another disappointment from a church that is unfortunately filled with disappointments these days," Lynaugh told ABC News. "Sainthood, maybe, but let's decide a couple hundred years from now. I'd settle with 10."
Father Thomas Williams, a Catholic priest and professor at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum in Rome, disagrees.
"This was a response to a grassroots petition rather than a top-down decision," he said. "There was public clamor for Pope John Paul II to be recognized as a saint as soon as he died. The Church merely acceded to the wishes of the faithful. The process began quickly but there were no shortcuts taken in the process itself. His life was scrutinized in minute detail and the result was what people had expected: John Paul was a truly holy man."
A support group for victims of pedophile priests, meanwhile, urged the Vatican to slow the rush to sanctify John Paul II. This weekend Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) issued a statement, accusing him of turning a blind eye to abuse.
"The church hierarchy can avoid rubbing more salt into these wounds by slowing down their hasty drive to confer sainthood on the pontiff,'' Barbara Blaine, head of SNAP said.
"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, adding that "most'' abuses happened during his long pontificate.
During his 27-year reign, John Paul II was considered by many to be the "rock star" pope. He was an avid skier and mountain climber, a poet and playwright while at the same time being unashamedly spiritual. His charm and boundless energy inspired the Catholic youth, and a new generation of faithful. At his funeral in 2005, the crowd of millions chanted "Santo Subito" -- "Sainthood Now."
Ahead of the ceremonies, the pope's coffin was carried from its resting place in the Vatican crypt beneath St. Peter's and placed before St. Peter's tomb where pilgrims filed past to pay their respects. A vial of John Paul's blood, taken during the last days before his death, was also put on display.
The beatification Mass was preceded on Saturday by a vigil at the Circus Maximus. Attendees included two of the pontiff's closest confidants, his former Private Secretary Stanislaw Dziwisz, and his press officer for many years, Joaquin Navarro Valls.
Pilgrims gathered in St. Peters Square all weekend, singing religious hymns, praying, and remembering the former pope.
The Vatican said at least 21 heads of state and 87 official delegations from around the world attended the ceremony, including presidents Giorgio Napolitano of Italy, Bronislaw Komorowski of Poland and Felipe Calderon of Mexico.
Catholic Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, who has been widely condemned for human rights abuses for decades, also attended under a special exemption from a European Union travel ban, allowing him to fly into Rome.
John Paul II will not officially be declared a saint until he is canonized, which requires a second miracle after beatification, though a pope may waive these requirements.