With a t-minus 45 day countdown to the beatification of Pope John Paul II, there are many questions about the event, what it means and its logistics for residents and visitors to Rome. As the first part in a series of beatification basics, guest writer John Thavis, Rome bureau chief of the Catholic News Service , has scribed a background to beatifying and the fundamentals for the upcoming May 1st event.
Pope John Paul II will be beatified May 1, just six years after his death. Not exactly “santo subito,” as the banners at his funeral requested, but it’s the fastest-track beatification in history. When John Paul will cross the sainthood finish line is still a mystery, however, because it will take another miracle before he can be canonized.
The Catholic Church processes saints’ causes in two phases. Beatification — literally, declaring a person “blessed” — marks the end of the first phase. During this time, the would-be saint’s life and writings are studied, witnesses are interviewed and evidence of personal holiness is reviewed. If the Vatican’s saintmakers give a thumbs-up, a first miracle is needed.
In Pope John Paul’s case, the miracle was waiting in the wings since 2005. Two months after the pope died, a 40-year-old French nun afflicted with Parkinson’s disease prayed to John Paul and woke up the next morning feeling fine. Her symptoms had disappeared, and the doctors were amazed. Last year the Vatican sent medical experts who confirmed her cure, and in January Pope Benedict signed a decree approving the miracle.
That set the beatification wheels in motion. The Vatican chose May 1 for the event, which — logistically speaking — was good news and bad news. On the plus side, the annual May Day (Labor Day) holiday will leave Rome at the disposal of the estimated 1 million+ people expected for the beatification Mass. But the holiday shutdown also risked leaving pilgrims without food and transportation. City officials have indicated they’ll relax the rules so that essential services are provided.
Beatification weekend will feature a prayer vigil April 30 in the Circus Maximus, the only Rome site big enough to absorb the crowds. Pope Benedict XVI will preside over the beatification liturgy in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday morning, May 1 (no tickets required). Afterward, visitors can pray in front of Pope John Paul’s casket inside St. Peter’s Basilica. The Vatican is, in fact, moving his tomb from the basilica’s grotto to a more prominent position in the upper level. On the morning of May 2, a thanksgiving Mass will be celebrated in St. Peter’s Square.
For canonization, a new miracle attributed to John Paul must be verified. Many sainthood causes have stalled in this final stage, but the betting in the Vatican is that the Polish pope won’t have long to wait.
John Thavis has been Catholic News Service Rome bureau chief since 1996, and a CNS Rome correspondent since 1983. He has traveled with Popes John Paul and Benedict on trips to more than 70 countries. In addition to covering the Vatican, he has written extensively on religious affairs in Europe and the Middle East, published a Rome guide book and was a main contributer to the 2003 book, “John Paul II: A Light for the World,” and 2010’s “Benedict XVI: Essays and Reflections on His Papacy.” He is past president of the Vatican Journalists Association and a recipient of numerous awards from the Catholic Press Association, including its highest honor, the St. Francis de Sales Award. CNS also hosts a CNS Blog for more news.