Poles joyful over pope's beatification
Warsaw - Poles are already calling him John Paul the Great.
Across the heavily Roman Catholic country, the faithful are voicing joy and pride as Sunday's beatification of Polish-born Pope John Paul II draws closer.
Many pilgrims are boarding buses and trains for the roughly 30-hour journey to Rome for the ceremony, while many more are expected to fill squares in Warsaw, Krakow and his hometown of Wadowice to follow it on large video screens.
The atmosphere of celebration contrasts sharply with the deep sense of mourning after John Paul died in 2005. At the time, black ribbons and packed churches were expressions of the widespread grief felt at the country's loss of its most respected moral authority and a figure credited with helping end communism.
Now many repeat a common refrain: That the beatification is largely a formality because they already consider their native son the holiest of men. Beatification is the last formal step before possible sainthood, and many in Poland hope that the fast beatification will be followed by a speedy canonization as well.
"For us, in fact, the Holy Father was already a saint during his lifetime, and after his death even more," said Ewa Filipiak, the mayor of Wadowice, the small town in southern Poland where Karol Wojtyla, the future pope, was born.
Inspired Solidarity movement
Warsaw Archbishop Kazimierz Nycz this week called the beatification a historic moment and predicted that the late pontiff will go down in history as "Pope John Paul II the Great".
Many Poles credit John Paul for his role in inspiring Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement, a catalyst in the toppling of communism in Poland.
His life, which was shaped by the suffering of World War II and the communist decades, also make him a "person with whom Poles identify without hesitation", said Marek Lasota, director of the Institute of National Remembrance, a state historical institute.
Yet in a sign of Poland's increasing seculariSation, the numbers making the trip to Rome are expected to be in the tens of thousands - far less than the hundreds of thousands at his funeral.
News of the beatification has also been overshadowed in recent days by the royal wedding in Britain.
Some Poles also criticiSe what they consider an unthinking adoration of a man who has come under scrutiny elsewhere for the crimes and cover-ups of the clerical sex abuse scandal that occurred during John Paul's 27-year papacy.
Stanislaw Obirek, a former Jesuit priest and a critic of what he considers an "authoritarian and oppressive" church, says there is a cult of John Paul II "which is the result of the country's communist heritage because it is based on a cult of personality".
Obirek, an anthropologist and expert on religion with Lodz University, predicts that in time Poland will resemble Spain or Ireland, traditional Catholic nations with strong anti-clerical movements.
Yet for now, he says, most critics of John Paul are still rarely willing to express their views publicly for fear of being marginalised socially.