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Q&A: John Paul II's beatification

The Vatican has hosted its biggest event in years - the beatification of the late Pope John Paul II.

The globe-trotting Pope credited with contributing to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe was blessed in St Peter's Square on Sunday 1 May.

Here the BBC's Rome correspondent, David Willey, answers questions about one of the most important events of Pope Benedict XVI's papacy.

What does beatifying John Paul II actually mean?

The ceremony attracted more than one million people - the biggest crowd in Rome since John Paul II's death, and the election of Pope Benedict XVI, six years ago. Four million pilgrims came on that occasion. The logistical arrangements put in place by the Vatican and the Rome city authorities are daunting.

It has almost become a tradition in the Roman Catholic Church to beatify and then to canonise outstanding popes of the past. Beatification, or declaring a person "blessed", is the necessary prelude to full sainthood. Just over a quarter of all popes from the time of St Peter onwards have been put on the path to sainthood by their successors.

In the 20th Century, Pope Pius X, who died shortly after the start of World War I, was declared a saint in 1954. The immensely popular Pope John XXIII was beatified in 2000 together with the long-reigning 19th-Century Pope Pius IX. The beatification process for the controversial World War II Pope Pius XII has been delayed after protests by Jewish organisations that he did not do enough to try to prevent the Nazi Holocaust.

When Pope John Paul II died in April 2005, there were shouts from the throngs of pilgrims who came to pay him their last respects: "Santo subito!" or "Make him a saint right now!"

One of the first acts of the new Pope Benedict was to put his predecessor on the fast track for sainthood by dispensing with the normal five-year waiting period before the Vatican saint-making department, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (CCS), began its meticulous research into his life history.

Beatification is normally the Catholic Church's official authorisation for the local veneration of a person considered to have led an exemplary holy life. Canonisation means that this person may be venerated anywhere in the world.

How does the Vatican justify beatifying the late Pope?

The CCS has interviewed hundreds of persons who knew the late pontiff, and carried out exhaustive enquiries into his reputation for holiness. Pope John Paul II himself created more new Saints and Blesseds that any of his predecessors.

Vatican experts, including Pope Benedict's own personal physician, have also examined the medical evidence for an allegedly miraculous cure - that of a 49-year-old French nun, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre Normand, in 2005 from Parkinson's Disease, the same malady which afflicted Pope John Paul II in his later years.

Sister Marie claims that she and her fellow nuns prayed for the intercession of Pope John Paul II after his death. Her sudden cure had no logical medical explanation and she later resumed her work as a maternity nurse, the Vatican says.

Do we only have the Vatican's word for the miracle?

There has as yet been no independent assessment of the medical evidence for Sister Marie's inexplicable cure. Another miracle will have to be certified by the Vatican before Pope John Paul II can be declared a saint.

The thinking behind the reason for requiring evidence of miracles performed by a new saint is that this is the proof that he (or she) is already in Heaven. There have been reports that Sister Marie has fallen ill again since her "cure" and that her diagnosis with Parkinson's Disease may have been incorrect.

Could John Paul II be declared a saint?

This depends on the results of the further examination of his personal record over the clerical sexual abuse crisis which hit the Roman Catholic Church on his watch from the 1990s up to the time of his death. The first reaction of the US-based victims' association Survivor's Network of those Abused by Priests (Snap) was to criticise what it described as a "hasty drive to confer sainthood on the pontiff under whose reign most of the widely documented clergy sex crimes and cover-ups took place".

Despite what the Vatican calls his "imposing fame for holiness", the late pontiff also appears to have been duped by the former head of the Legionaries of Christ, a Mexican priest called Fr Marcial Maciel Delgado. This man, who had access at the highest levels inside the Vatican for many years, has been exposed as a swindler and perpetrator of serious sexual misconduct including the fathering of two children who allege that he sexually abused them.

What does his beatification involve?

The sealed triple casket - made of plain wood, lead and another outside covering of wood - in which Pope John Paul was interred in 2005, was removed from its temporary resting place in the Vatican crypt early on Friday morning in the presence of a small group of high-ranking Vatican officials. The marble tombstone marking the former burial place will be sent to Krakow in Poland where it will be placed inside a new church dedicated to the late pontiff.

The casket was carried in procession to another part of the Vatican crypt - close to the place where the first Pope, St Peter, is believed by archaeologists to have been originally buried. It was draped with a cloth lavishly embroidered in gold, and remained in this holiest part of the basilica until the beatification ceremony on Sunday morning, after which it was placed in front of the main altar for public veneration.

The casket will be reinterred in the Chapel of St Sebastian - one of the side chapels in the basilica. The remains of another former Pope, Innocent X, have had to be moved to make way for John Paul II.

Millions of Catholics have visited the tomb of John Paul II in the crypt in the six years which have elapsed since his death, and his final resting place inside the basilica is expected to become a new place of mass pilgrimage within a short time.

A vial containing the late Pope's blood was prepared as a relic for veneration at his beatification ceremony. Sister Marie - who says she was cured after praying to the Pope - carried the reliquary in which the vial is kept during the beatification ceremony, together with another nun, Sister Tobiana, who nursed John Paul during his final illness.

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