VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - For Jan Skibinski, there was only one place to be on the day the late Pope John Paul II took the last step before sainthood.
The Polish customs agent drove his family 29 hours from their hometown on the border with Belarus and queued with hundreds of thousands of people through the night so he could make it into St. Peter’s Square for the beatification of Poland’s most famous native son.
Clutching a red-and-white Polish flag, he was among tens of thousands of devotees from Poland, flanked by pilgrims from all over the world in the biggest crowd in Rome since John Paul’s funeral six years ago.
“He was our beloved pope. He always knew how to lead and be our guide. He taught us how to live and he taught us how to love,” said Skibinski, 40, waiting with his wife and two children for stewards to allow them to move into the square.
“We were at the funeral and we just had to be here to see him beatified,” he said.
By the time the weary but happy Skibinskis made it into the square, about a million and a half people had thronged the area around the Vatican.
At the mass, John Paul’s successor Pope Benedict pronounced a Latin formula proclaiming one of the most popular popes in history a “blessed” of the Church, before a tapestry showing the late pope smiling was unveiled to the crowds.
“It was very moving, very overwhelming, especially when the tapestry was uncovered and everyone cheered,” said Anne McManus from Motherwell in Scotland.
“He was very much a people’s pope. When he came to Scotland he got a good big crowd. All the young people went to see him.”
The square in front of the biggest church in Christendom was filled to the brim for the ceremony, while crowds packed into the surrounding area where many had camped out all night.
Claude Grbesa, a Croatian diplomat, saw similarities between the history of his country and that of the pope’s Poland.
“For a Croat, a country which was, like Poland, under a communist regime, we recognize the role of John Paul in his fight against communism and he was a big friend of Croatia,” Grbesa said.
In the early 1980s, John Paul was a staunch supporter of the Solidarnosc free trade union, which overcame government attempts to crush it and was a key player in the formation of the first democratic government in the former Soviet bloc.
“Sainthood now!” read one banner waving in the square, along with national flags from as far afield as Cuba, Mexico, Canada and Australia.
The sign was reminiscent of those held up at John Paul’s funeral in 2005.
“We think he should be made a saint, he is smiling down on us now, look at the sunshine!” said Paska Olara, 39, from Uganda, who wore a traditional national dress in the Vatican colors of yellow and white.
A cheer went up when a group of Poles released a large banner reading “Thank You, God” held aloft by balloons.
“For me it was a miracle to be in this place at this moment,” said Marek Lusak, a filmmaker from Poland.
A special place was reserved for Sister Marie Simon-Pierre Normand, a French nun who suffered from Parkinson’s disease. The church said she was cured, attributing it to John Paul’s intercession with God to perform a miracle, a development that cleared the way for his beatification.
During the service she and another nun carried a silver reliquary containing a vial of John Paul’s blood, which was drawn from him during medical tests in the last days of his life in case he needed a transfusion.
The Vatican will have to attribute another miracle to John Paul’s intercession after the beatification in order for him to be declared a saint.
Many pilgrims later queued to see John Paul’s coffin, which was placed in front of the main altar after it was exhumed from the crypts of St Peter’s Basilica on Friday. The basilica will remain open until all visitors who want to view it have done so.