ROME — Thousands of young people have flooded an ancient Roman field for an all-night prayer vigil honoring Pope John Paul II on the eve of his beatification, remembering his teachings, travels and his own suffering.
Pilgrims waving flags from Poland, Spain, Germany and Brazil on Saturday filled the Circus Maximus, which twinkled with the light of thousands of candles as choirs from John Paul's native Poland, the Philippines and Italy sang. They listened as a French nun who suffered from Parkinson's recounted how she was cured after praying to John Paul, who also battled the same disease.
The Vatican has decreed that Sister Marie Simone-Pierre's inexplicable healing was the miracle needed to beatify John Paul, a process that will reach its culmination Sunday during a Mass in St. Peter's Square celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI.
Benedict put John Paul on the fast-track for possible sainthood when he dispensed with the traditional five-year waiting period and allowed the beatification process to begin weeks after his April 2, 2005 death. Benedict was responding to chants of "Santo Subito" or "Sainthood Immediately" which erupted during John Paul's funeral.
On Saturday night, a "Santo Subito" banner was emblazoned on the side of the Circus Maximus field, and film of John Paul's final moments and his funeral reminded those gathered of the tearful days many had witnessed six years earlier, when St. Peter's overflowed with some 3 million people paying their last respects to the pope.
"He died a saint," Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, John Paul's longtime secretary, told the crowd.
The vigil was to last all night, a so-called "white night" of prayer to be continued in eight churches kept open in the city center before barricades around St. Peter's Square open to pilgrims at 5:30 a.m. (0330GMT) for the 10 a.m. (0800GMT) beatification Mass.
The beatification is taking place despite a steady drumbeat of criticism about the record-fast speed with which John Paul is being honored, and continued outrage about the clerical abuse scandal: Many of the crimes and cover-ups of priests who raped children occurred on John Paul's 27-year watch.
"I hope he didn't know about the pedophiles," said Sister Maria Luisa Garcia, a Spanish nun attending the vigil. "If he did, it was an error. But no one is perfect, only God."
At the very least, she said, the church had learned as a result of the scandal, "that a person's dignity, especially a child's, is more important than the church's image."
Video montages shown during the vigil showed various scenes of John Paul's lengthy pontificate, his teachings about marriage and justice. One of the first shown was of his final Easter, when he was unable to speak from his studio window, too hobbled by Parkinson's, and only managed a weak blessing of the crowd.
Sister Marie, the French nun, said that at the time she couldn't bear to watch John Paul's condition worsen because she knew his slow decline would be her fate.
"In him, I was reminded of what I was living through," she told the crowd. "But I always admired his humility, his strength, his courage."
Wearing her simple white habit and a black cardigan, she recounted to the crowd her now well-known tale: She said that on June 2, 2005 she told her superior she felt she could no longer continue her work helping new mothers because her Parkinson's symptoms had worsened and she had little strength left.
Her superior, she said, told her that "John Paul II hasn't had the last word" and that she should pray.
She said she woke up the following morning "feeling something had changed in me." She said she went to the chapel and prayed. "I wasn't the same. I knew I had been cured."
The Vatican's complicated saint-making procedures require that a miracle attributed to the candidate's intercession be confirmed before beatification, the first step to possible sainthood.
The crowd on the Circus Maximus had the feel of a World Youth Day, the once-ever-three-year event John Paul launched to energize young Catholics that became a hallmark of his pontificate. Groups of young people danced and sang, many carrying backpacks and sleeping bags in preparation for a night to be spent outdoors.
"It's true that nowadays most of the young don't care about religion, but John Paul showed us love, and love is all we need," said Matea Sarlija, a 21-year-old Croat who spent 10 hours on a bus to arrive in Rome for the vigil.
Rome itself seemed invaded by Poles overjoyed that their native son was being honored. Special trains, planes and buses were shuttling Poles in for the beatification, which is drawing some 16 heads of state and five members of European royal houses.
"I'm here because I think it's my duty, a duty for all the society of my country, to show what a big big man John Paul was," said Stanislaw Roguski, a pilgrim from Warsaw who arrived in Rome by bus on Saturday afternoon.
In Krakow, where John Paul was archbishop, two TV screens at two different sites are to broadcast the beatification ceremony Sunday from Rome. Houses were decorated with Poland's white-and-red flags and the Vatican's white-and-yellow colors.
The vigil featured televised hookups from five Marian shrines in Krakow, Mexico, Tanzania, Portugal and Lebanon, where the faithful were also celebrating.
Thousands of Mexicans held a prayer vigil in Mexico City's Virgen of Guadalupe Basilica on Saturday while two large screens inside the church projected the celebrations in Rome.
"He was a person who elevated the faith," said Jorge Lopez Baracenas, a 70-year-old who was attending the vigil in Mexico City's Virgen of Guadalupe Basilica.
In the Dominican Republic, members of the Santo Domingo youth pastoral prepared for a midnight Saturday vigil to remember John Paul II and watch the beatification ceremony on giant television screen.
Some 3,000 people gathered at the God's Mercy Sanctuary in the Lagiewniki district of Krakow, watching the Roman ceremony on large TV screens and at one point holding a joint rosary prayer.
Vatican officials have insisted that John Paul deserves beatification despite the fallout from the abuse scandal, saying the saint-making process isn't a judgment of how he administered the church but rather whether he lived a life of Christian virtue.
But victims' groups such as the U.S. Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests have said the speedy beatification was just "rubbing more salt in these wounds" of victims.
And Le Soir, the main French-speaking newspaper in Belgium, charged Saturday that the pace of the beatification contrasted sharply with the "lengthy wait" victims of abuse had to endure for justice. Belgium's Catholic Church has been rocked by new reports of hundreds of victims as well as the resignation of its longest-serving bishop who admitted to abusing two nephews.
"This is the (beatification) of a man obsessed by the rights of unborn children (and the rejection of condoms) but who allowed those same children to be without protection by not addressing ... the question of pedophile priests during his reign," the editorial said.
Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, retired head of the Vatican's saint-making office, said Saturday the investigation into John Paul's life had taken the clerical abuse scandal into account but that John Paul can't be held responsible for something he didn't know about.
"If I'm not informed of something, what guilt do I have?" he asked rhetorically. "This didn't touch at all the holiness of John Paul."
Associated Press writers Alba Tobella in Rome, E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed to this report.