They pray to him for healing, name their children and schools after him, chant his words for inspiration in their neediest moments.
Six years after his death, Pope John Paul II remains the face of the Catholic Church for many of the world’s estimated 1.1 billion Catholics. His continued hold on their imaginations was evident Sunday as hundreds of thousands gathered in Rome and millions more in front of televisions to watch the beatification of their hero.
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.”
John Paul’s beatification is believed to be the speediest in centuries. But it’s only weeks faster than the elevation of Mother Teresa, the Calcutta nun who died in 1997 and was beatified by John Paul in 2003. And it’s nowhere near as quick as that of Saint Anthony of Padua, who died in June 1231 and was canonized within a year.
More typical is the case of Kateri Tekakwitha, the daughter of a Mohawk warrior who angered her tribe when she converted to Christianity. She died in 1680 and wasn’t beatified until 1980.
John Paul’s beatification was in the works almost immediately after his death on April 2, 2005, at 84, with crowds shouting “Santo subito,” or “Saint immediately,” at his funeral.
The miracle needed to beatify him was confirmed by Vatican investigators in January. They concluded that posthumous prayers to John Paul had cured a French nun of Parkinson’s disease.
John Paul has been a beacon for Jennifer Kilmer’s entire life. She prayed for him every day as a child, serenaded him as a teen when he visited the United States and now issues pleas to him for financial help.
“We changed it from ‘John Paul II, we love you,’ to ‘John Paul II, we need you,’ ” said Kilmer, 45, who lives in Rockville.
She also looks to John Paul for support in her biggest challenge: raising 11 children, all under 12. Sometimes her large family is an object of scorn, she said. “I constantly go back to when he said, ‘Be not afraid,’ ” she said, quoting a line of John Paul’s soon after he became pope. “I feel this is what God’s called me to do.” Her eighth child, 5, is named for John Paul.
Vince Spadoni, a 41-year-old Catholic school administrator, has felt a connection to the late pope ever since he was a child growing up in an Italian parish in Upstate New York.
“We were proud to be Catholic, and he was a big part of that” — a leader who embraced the supernatural at a time when skepticism and materialism were watering down spirituality, he said.
Spadoni has had his students at St. Elizabeth School in Rockville praying every day for the beatification. The minute the Vatican confirmed that John Paul would be beatified, he went on the public-address system at St. Elizabeth, where he is principal.
“I said, ‘Boys and girls, our prayers have been answered!’ ” he recalled. “All the kids were cheering and shouting.”
But not every Catholic is celebrating. For Peter Isely, a Milwaukee psychotherapist, the beatification is a difficult event. Abused as a boy by a priest at a Catholic boarding school, Isely said, he was part of a group of more than 30 survivors who in the early 1990s sent John Paul a packet of letters and videos that explained their abuse by priests “in painful, excruciating detail.”
The men felt sure John Paul didn’t know, and Isely recalled their desperation for his response. The Vatican’s U.S. representative confirmed that “it would go where it needs to go,” he said. That was the last the men heard.
John Paul traveled the world to speak out for the most vulnerable but never met with clergy abuse victims or truly embraced their cause.
“We didn’t need him to be a saint,” said Isely, who remains a Catholic. “We needed something a lot more ordinary” — a basic sense of duty to protect children.
Even as the U.S. church was being rocked by allegations of sexual misconduct and coverup, priests always felt understood by the pope. He emphasized the church’s view that celibacy is a gift from God and that priests are representatives of Christ.
The Rev. Paul deLadurantaye, director of liturgy for the Diocese of Arlington, was one of 67 men ordained in 1988 by John Paul in Rome, where deLadurantaye was studying moral theology. He remembers feeling the power of centuries of clerical lineage when the pope put his hands on the young priest’s head.
“I got to look into his eyes and saw a man involved with God,” deLadurantaye said.
“For someone in their 20s still discerning, ‘Is God really calling me to this?,’ it was comforting, reassuring to see that sense of clarity, that love for the priesthood,” he said.
On Sunday, Aybar, the Bethesda home health aide, will be praying for John Paul. And for the confirmation of a second miracle. Maybe it could be her, she said.
The lupus medication has left her eyes painfully sensitive to light. So she is appealing to him again, hoping for more healing.
“I say, ‘John Paul, you have to finish!’ ” she said with a smile. “He is a holy man.”