HUNDREDS of thousands of pilgrims are set to descend on Rome to witness the beatification of John Paul II, the first “global pope”, who will be put on the track to sainthood only six years after his death.

The photogenic Karol Wojtyla – who governed the Catholic Church for over quarter of a century – beamed down from placards on the side of buses and banners strung on the capital’s historic buildings yesterday.

Criticisms of the Polish pope’s conservative doctrine and his lack of attention to the church’s ills – from corruption to pedophile priests – appear to have had little weight as his sainthood was fast-tracked since his death six years ago.

To set John Paul II on the road to beatification, the Vatican had to confirm he had worked a miracle – the healing, apparently inexplicable by science, of a French nun affected by Parkinson’s.

Another miracle is needed before sainthood. Thousands of Catholics have sent stories to the Vatican describing how they were helped by the pope after his death and 270 testimonies of presumed miracles will be examined in more detail. Those who had been close to John Paul II, including his personal secretary Stanislaw Dziwisz, will tell their stories during a vigil held in Rome’s historic centre tonight.

Tomorrow, the beatification mass will be led by Pope Benedict in St Peter’s Square. A phial of John Paul II’s blood, which was taken during the last days of his illness, will be on show.

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