RALEIGH, N.C. -- When Pope John Paul II moves one step away from sainthood Sunday, the event will be celebrated in cathedrals, high schools and homes by American Roman Catholics who revere the Polish pontiff like none before him.
Other American Catholics see the occasion as a reminder that the charismatic, globe-trotting pope was a better leader for the world at large than for his own flock.
John Paul II has only been dead for six years, but his 27-year tenure as leader of the church already is being harkened to by believers as a golden age, when Catholicism faced down Soviet Communism and won admirers from all faiths. They see the scheduled beatification in Rome as the obvious way to recognize the man referred to by many as John Paul the Great.
"It's a huge deal, especially here in the U.S., in this secularized culture that we're moving towards, what he called the culture of death," said Justin Braga, 28, of Waltham, Mass. "He was standing up against that. He wanted to maintain the sacredness of things."
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The focus on the first pope to truly harness the global media is a welcome break for many Catholics weary of fights over doctrine and politics, and the still-raw anger generated by the sexual abuse scandals uncovered in the past decade. For some Catholics, John Paul II's papacy is inseparable from those troubles.
"There are lots of people saying he was a great pope for the world, but not nearly as great a pope for the church," said Thomas Groome, chairman of the Department of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry at Boston College. "Many Catholics feel he did not embrace the spirit of renewal and reform heralded by the Second Vatican Council."
Beatification is the next-to-last step before a Catholic is formally declared a saint, meaning the church teaches that person is definitely in heaven. In order to be beatified, which confers the title "blessed," a person's life has to stand up to a thorough investigation, and one miracle has to be attributed to the candidate. There's normally a five-year waiting period between a candidate's death and when the process begins, but Pope Benedict XVI waived that for his predecessor.
John Paul II won't become a saint until he's canonized, which requires the documentation of another miracle, usually a cure for an illness that medical science can't explain. A beatified person can be venerated in local churches, but saints can be celebrated anywhere in the world.
John Paul II was himself an enthusiastic promoter of sainthood and beatification. He streamlined the process to make canonization move faster, celebrated canonizations all over the world and named more saints than all the popes in the previous 400 years combined.
"He understood that there's nothing like a canonization to fire up the faithful," said Justin Catanoso, a North Carolina journalist and author of "My Cousin the Saint," about his relative Gaetano Catanoso, who was beatified and named a saint by John Paul II. "It's just a gorgeous ritual."
Saints play an important role in the lives of Catholics, who believe they serve not just as models of holiness but as advocates for the faithful. Catholics don't worship saints, but ask the saints to intercede for them with God.
Barb Verly of Marshall, Minn., began praying for help from John Paul II after her 20-year-old son was diagnosed with brain cancer, which now has been in remission for over a year.
"The day John Paul died, I knew I wasn't praying for him, the way I pray for other people when they die," she said. "I knew that I was praying to him, that he was standing there next to Jesus, interceding."
Verly joined the church in 1971 when she was 20, and she said John Paul ultimately helped make the transition much easier.
"Growing up Protestant, the pope was one of those things that was really hard to understand, but John Paul, he just radiated this love and a deep spiritualness that people responded to," she said.
His enduring popularity can be partially gauged in the enthusiasm greeting his beatification. Masses are being offered in dioceses across the country, and Catholic book stores are putting out special displays of books and memorabilia tied to the beatification.