The beatification ceremony — a Mass and day-long prayers beside John Paul’s coffin — is the next-to-last step before being designated a saint, a process that typically takes centuries.
The speed at which John Paul is being elevated is not without critics. On Saturday, victims of clergy sex abuse distributed leaflets outside churches in 62 cities to protest the beatification and to urge Catholics to turn abusers in to the police.
Debate has only begun among historians and church scholars about John Paul’s legacy as a pope, whether he was too lenient on sexually abusive priests and too harsh on dissenters.
But to ordinary Catholics, it was his personal qualities that made him a spiritual superstar. People describe their lives being changed by his holiness, charisma and a soul that allowed him to forgive his would-be assassin, confront communism and persevere through Parkinson’s disease.
“I don’t know how to explain him, the way he shows love. Something in his eyes goes inside you,” Fatima Aybar, 46, a Bethesda home health aide, said as she pressed her palms to her heart.
It was John Paul to whom Aybar appealed to heal her from the lupus that was ravaging her body. And she believes he did. She wept, shuddered and giggled as she recounted the tingle and the warmth that raced through her body after a series of desperate prayers to John Paul — knowing she was healed.
“I kneeled and said, ‘John Paul, thank you, thank you!’ ” said Aybar, who has been declared lupus-free. She submitted her medical records to the church in the hopes that she could be the second miracle needed to make him a saint.
Some experts think John Paul is being whisked through the saint-making process for one simple reason: his epic popularity.
Pope for more than a quarter-century, the Polish actor, skier and poet was one of the most important religious leaders of the past century. He expanded relations with Jews and Muslims, fought for democracy, and globe-trotted hundreds of thousands of miles to put a handsome, vigorous face on a papacy that had largely been cloistered in Italy.
For many, John Paul remains the personification of a church now led by a less charismatic figure as it wrestles with everything from sex abuse to secularism.
Average Catholics don’t care “how he responded to the ordination of women, or this or that about sex abuse,” said R. Scott Appleby, a historian of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. “Their needs are more basic. People want someone who renews their hope and connects that to their faith in God. And on that level, he succeeded spectacularly. If you lose your big home-run hitter, you want to keep his presence alive, vital and immediate in whatever ways possible.”