, , , , , , , , , ,

Vatican City (May 1, 2011)  — Catholic faithful from around the world poured into Rome on Sunday as the Catholic Church declares Pope John Paul II “blessed,” a step below sainthood.

There were cheers as Pope Benedict XVI personally beatified his predecessor, and a huge portrait of John Paul II was unveiled, showing him as the healthy, vigorous and relatively young man he was early in his papacy.

A vial of John Paul II’s blood was placed before the crowds, which were expected to be the largest in the Vatican since the late pope’s funeral in 2005.

The blood, which was taken from him by doctors during his final illness for possible transfusion, but never used, was displayed in a specially made silver reliquary.

Next came requests — first in English and then Polish, John Paul II’s native language — that people put down their banners and flags, and pray silently.

Benedict praised John Paul’s iron will in the face of his physical decline later in his life, saying, “the Lord gradually stripped him of everything, yet he remained ever a ‘rock,’ as Christ desired.”

Pilgrims turned out in large numbers, waving Polish flags and holding images of John Paul II, who hailed from Poland and was archbishop of Krakow before being elected pope in 1978.

There were also big crowds in Krakow, Poland, for the event, where at least 50,000 people braved pouring rain at the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy in Lagiewniki.

Credited with helping to topple Communism, visiting more countries than any previous pope, and becoming the first pontiff from outside of Italy in 450 years, John Paul II also was the third-longest reigning pope in history.

The Vatican suggests he was seen in person by more than anyone else in human history, between his 104 foreign trips, the roughly 17 million pilgrims who attended weekly audiences with him at the Vatican over his long reign, and the millions more who saw him at special events in Rome.

There were demands for his immediate canonization when he died, with crowds chanting “Santo subito,” or “Saint now.”

But the late pope has critics as well as supporters, particularly among those who accuse him of not doing enough to stop the abuse of children by Catholic clergy.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) vowed to protest at 70 churches in seven countries Sunday, calling

The group calls the fast-tracking of pontiff’s sainthood “a callous PR juggernaut honoring the man who presided over much of the ongoing crisis.”

But John Paul II’s former spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, told CNN he had no doubt he had been in the presence of a saint.

Navarro-Valls cited not only the pope’s devotion at prayer, but his concern for others, noting a time when the pope called him and asked about the health of his ailing mother before anything else.

He also recalled the pope’s lack of pretense, saying he sometimes had to remind himself that he was in the presence of the pope.

John Paul II was fast-tracked to beatification when he died in 2005, and becomes “the blessed” John Paul II barely six years after his death — the fastest beatification in centuries.

Navarro-Valls rejected the idea that the process was moving too fast to let history be the judge of John Paul II, saying canonization could take centuries.

For beatification, a person must be credited with a miracle by the Catholic Church. Benedict ruled last year that John Paul II had miraculously cured a French nun of Parkinson’s disease after his death. The pope himself suffered from the condition.

The nun, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, was one of two nuns who brought the silver reliquary with the blood to Benedict after John Paul II was beatified.

The blood is still liquid because doctors added anti-coagulents to it when it was taken.

The Catholic tradition of venerating saints’ physical remains — known as relics — dates to the earliest days of the church.

To become saint, John Paul II would need to perform a second miracle.

CNN’s John L. Allen, Jr., Hada Messia, Diana Magnay and Richard Allen Greene contributed to this report.