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Pope to beatify John Paul II in May 1 rite It is the fastest approval process in church history

During Pope John Paul II's 2005 funeral, crowds at the Vatican shouted for him to be made a saint immediately. His successor heard their call.

On Friday, in the fastest process on record, Pope Benedict XVI set May 1 as the date for John Paul's beatification -- a key step toward Catholicism's highest honor.

He set the date after declaring that a French nun's recovery from Parkinson's disease was the miracle needed for John Paul to be beatified. A second miracle is needed to be canonized a saint.

Benedict will preside at the May 1 ceremony, which is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to Rome for a precedent-setting Mass: Never before has a pope beatified his immediate predecessor.

Although the numbers may not reach the 3 million who flocked here for John Paul's funeral, religious tour operators in his native Poland were already preparing to bus and fly in the faithful to celebrate a man many considered a saint while he was alive.

"We have waited a long time, and this is a great day for us," said Mayor Ewa Filipiak of John Paul's hometown of Wadowice, where the faithful lit candles Friday and prayed at a chapel in the town church dedicated to John Paul.

Benedict put John Paul on the fast track to possible sainthood just weeks after he died, waiving the typical five-year waiting period before the process could begin. But he insisted that the investigation into John Paul's life be thorough.

The beatification will nevertheless be the fastest on record, coming a little more than six years after his death and beating out Mother Teresa's then-record beatification in 2003 by a few days.

It is not without controversy, however. While John Paul himself was never accused of improprieties, he has long been accused of responding slowly when the clergy sex abuse scandal erupted in the United States in 2002. Many of the thousands of cases that emerged last year involved crimes and cover-ups during his 26-year papacy.

Critics have faulted John Paul's overriding concern with preserving the rights of accused priests, often at the expense of victims -- a concern formed in part by his experiences in communist-controlled Poland, where priests were often accused of trumped-up charges.

The most damaging case linked to John Paul concerned the Rev. Marciel Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a conservative order beloved by the late pope because of its orthodoxy, fundraising prowess and ability to attract priestly vocations.

Allegations that Maciel had raped young seminarians were brought by the victims to the Vatican in the 1990s, but under apparent orders from John Paul's No. 2, a canonical trial was shelved.

Only after Benedict became pope was Maciel sanctioned in 2006; Maciel died two years later.

Despite the Maciel case, Vatican officials have said there was nothing in John Paul's record that put his beatification into question. Vatican watchers noted on Friday that beatification isn't a "score card" on how John Paul administered the church but rather a recognition that he led a saintly life.

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