April 23, 2011 / 10:26 PM / 8 years ago

Pope begins Easter as John Paul beatification nears

Pope Benedict XVI arrives holding a candle as he leads the Easter Vigil mass in Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican April 23, 2011. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

ROME (Reuters) - Pope Benedict led the world’s Catholics into Easter on Saturday, ahead of the beatification of his venerated predecessor John Paul II on May 1.

The 84 year-old pontiff presided at an Easter eve service in St Peter’s Basilica, delivering a sermon around the theme of divine creation and receiving six adult converts from various countries into the church.

Saturday’s ceremony followed a cautious move on Good Friday to address a wider audience through a televised question and answer session between the pope and a selected group including a child in Japan and a Muslim woman in Ivory Coast.

The Easter celebration, marking the resurrection of Christ after his crucifixion, will continue on Sunday, when the pope will deliver his twice yearly “Urbi et Orbi” (To the City and the World) address in St Peter’s Square.

The celebration was largely free of controversy seen last year, when allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests overshadowed the holiest occasion of the church year, although the pope referred to the scandal in his Good Friday address.

Instead, preparations were underway for the influx of visitors to Rome expected next week for the three-day program of events during which the late Pope John Paul II will be declared “blessed,” the last step before sainthood.

The beatification has been seen as an opportunity for the church to renew its message and repair its image after the abuse scandal which deeply damaged its standing and credibility.

At least 300,000 extra visitors are expected in Rome and preparations were visible in the streets of the Italian capital, where giant outdoor television screens will show the ceremony to the crowds who cannot get close enough in person.

The beatification is expected to be one of the biggest events in Rome since the late pope died in 2005 and millions came for his funeral and to view his body as it lay in state.

Writing by James Mackenzie

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