By Morven McLean
Roman Catholics from around the world are converging on Rome this weekend for celebrations to mark the beatification of Pope John Paul II, six years after his death.
Rome is expecting one to two million visitors on May 1 – most of them there for the ceremony, which is the first step in the Polish pope’s road to sainthood. Hundreds of mainly young people from Switzerland are attending.
“A beatification is a party, a day of joy. It’s also a day to proclaim that a person has done something special for humankind,” said Mario Galgani a Swiss spokesman at Vatican Radio.
The programme starts on Saturday with a big prayer meeting near the Colosseum and continues until Monday, the day after the beatification.
Galgani said a lot of people were expected from Switzerland because May 6 is the day when the Swiss Guard – the pope’s private army – is sworn in. Many Swiss would come to Rome for the beatification and stay on.
Accommodation would be limited, but “no one will find closed doors”.
Drusberg Reisen, which is based in the central town of Einsiedeln and specialises in pilgrimages, told swissinfo.ch it had received bookings from across the country. It had filled three coaches, each holding 80 people, with one additional coach exclusively for youths.
And Catholic youth movement N’APP Network said it had around 100 people aged 15-35 signed up from French-speaking Switzerland.
Among the Swiss pilgrims will be just one representative of the Swiss Bishops Conference, auxiliary bishop Denis Theurillat.
“He’s going alone because May 1 is the Sunday after Easter and it’s a traditional day in Switzerland for first communions and confirmations. All our bishops are busy with that and it wasn’t possible for them to go,” spokesman Walter Müller told swissinfo.ch.
Müller added that a beatification – when a person is declared “blessed” and can be venerated within the local church in which they were active – did not have the same impact as canonisation, when a person is made a saint.
“Of course popes have an impact across the world and so in Switzerland too there will be special services on and around May 1 to commemorate and honour John Paul II,” he said.
Much has been made of the fact that Pope John Paul II has been put on the “fast track” to sainthood. Normally the process of beatification does not start until five years after the candidate’s death. In this case it began two months after the pope’s death.
Michael Sherwin, a moral theology professor at Fribourg University, recalls that at the pope’s funeral the masses were chanting “santo subito”, or “a saint at once”, which is extremely unusual.
Sherwin said the current pope, Benedict XVI, would have taken the final decision to speed up the process of sainthood in the case of his predecessor, to whom he was close.
“When the Church decides to beatify or canonise someone, they want to hold them up as a model,” he told swissinfo.ch.
Sherwin mentions the “extraordinary human drama” of Karol Wojtyla’s rise from day labourer in Nazi-occupied Krakow to the first Polish pope when his country was still under the bondage of communism.
For Müller, “John Paul II was undoubtedly one of the greatest popes in Church history. Not only because of the political role that was attributed to him – his influence was a contributory factor in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe – but in the Church itself during his long pontificate he had a great influence and set many things in motion, which have strengthened the Christian Church.”
Legacy to youth
Both Sherwin and Müller agree that John Paul II was exceptional in the appeal he held for Catholic youth.
The people who “got” John Paul were the youth, said Sherwin. “What were the things he was saying in his writings? Be not afraid, the Gospel is still true, it’s a gospel of liberation. He was proclaiming a message of hope.
“The only way for a society to be free is to believe that there are objective values. The young people get that because they’re thirsting for that.”
Müller mentions as part of John Paul’s legacy the upcoming World Youth Day in Madrid, an event which was established by the pope and will bring together youth from around the world this August.
“Young people from all parts of Switzerland have spontaneously organised to go to Rome for the beatification. And this is a strong signal, as many of them are also going to Madrid for the world youth event. Young people generally don’t have much money but they are still going,” Müller said.
One of those going to both events is 24-year-old graphic artist Martin Iten from Zug.
“I met John Paul II just twice in my life. In the year 2000 at the World Youth Day in Rome and in 2004 when he visited Switzerland. Both times I was dozens if not hundreds of metres away from him, yet for me he was and is someone who has given me a great deal. I thank him for that,” Iten told swissinfo.ch.
Hélène Constantin of the N’APP Network says that it was John Paul II who brought most young people into the Church and set them on the road of faith.
“We want to go to Rome for the beatification to pay homage and thank him,” she said.