Pope Benedict XVI beatified the late Pope John Paul II before 1.5 million faithful at St. Peter's Square and surrounding streets on Sunday, moving the beloved former pontiff one step closer to possible sainthood in one of the largest turnouts ever for a Vatican Mass.

The crowd in Rome and in capitals around the world erupted in cheers, tears and applause as an enormous photo of a young, smiling Pope John Paul II was unveiled over the loggia of St. Peter's Basilica and a choir launched into hymn long associated with the Polish-born Pope.

“He restored to Christianity its true face as a religion of hope,” Pope Benedict XVI said in his homily, referring to Pope John Paul II's decisive role in helping bring down communism. Pope Benedict XVI dotted his remarks with personal recollections of a man he came to “revere” during their near-quarter century working together.

Beatification is the first major milestone on the path to possible sainthood, one of the Catholic Church's highest honours. A second miracle attributed to Pope John Paul II's intercession is needed for him to be canonized.

The beatification, the fastest in modern times, is a morale booster for a church scarred by the sex abuse crisis, but it has also triggered a new wave of anger from victims because the scandal occurred under Pope John Paul II's 27-year watch.

There was heavy security as 16 heads of state, eight Prime Ministers and five members of European royal houses attended the event.

Helicopters flew overhead, police boats patrolled the nearby Tiber River and some 5,000 uniformed troops manned police barricades to ensure priests, official delegations and those with coveted VIP passes could get to their places amid the throngs of pilgrims.

“He went all over the world,” said Bishop Jean Zerbo of Bamako, Mali, who came to Rome for the ceremony. “Today, we're coming to him.”

Vendors hawked Pope John Paul II trinkets, bottle openers, key chains, cushions, calendars and T-shirts.

Pope Benedict XVI put Pope John Paul II 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. He was responding to chants of “Santo Subito!” or “Sainthood Immediately” which erupted during Pope John Paul's funeral.

On Sunday, a group of pilgrims from Krakow affixed a banner to a fence outside the square that said “Santo Subito,” evidence that for many of the faithful, Pope John Paul II already is a saint.

Around the world, Catholics celebrated the beatification, jamming churches from Mexico to Australia to pray and watch broadcasts of the Rome Mass on television.

In Pope John Paul II's native Poland, tens of thousands of people gathered in rain in a major sanctuary in Krakow and in Wadowice, where the pontiff was born in 1920 as Karol Wojtyla.

Speaking in Latin, Pope Benedict XVI pronounced Pope John Paul II “Blessed” shortly after the start of the mass, held under bright blue skies and amid a sea of Poland's red and white flags, a scene reminiscent of Pope John Paul II's 2005 funeral, when some 3 million people paid homage to him.

Pope Benedict XVI recalled that day six years ago, saying the grief the world felt then was tempered by immense gratitude for his life and pontificate.

“Even then, we perceived the fragrance of his sanctity,” Pope Benedict XVI said, explaining the “reasonable haste” with which Pope John Paul II was being honoured.

After the nearly three-hour Mass, Pope Benedict XVI prayed before Pope John Paul II's coffin inside St. Peter's Basilica

More In: News | International