VATICAN CITY -- John Paul II's beatification on Sunday will mark the penultimate stage in the process to make the late Polish-born pontiff a saint, an event seen as inappropriate by some critics, but eagerly anticipated by millions of admirers.
Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI seemed in tune with the will of the faithful when he decided in 2005 to waive the normal five-year waiting period after a candidate's death in order to launch the beatification process. The chant of "Santo subito!" (Saint immediately!), which rose up from St Peter's Square during John Paul's funeral, suggested that, for many, there was no doubting the holiness of the man who had led the Catholic Church for almost three decades.
Though not as instant as some would have liked, John Paul's beatification -- the fastest in modern times -- comes just over six years since his death on April 2, 2005.
Earlier this year, Benedict gave the final go-ahead after church experts approved the healing of a French nun afflicted by Parkinson's as a miracle attributable to John Paul's intercession.
In terms of speed, it edges out, by 15 days, the 2003 beatification of Mother Teresa, the ethnic-Albanian, Macedonian-born nun who won worldwide admiration for her work in the slums of Calcutta and who died in 1997.
The archbishop of Krakow, Poland -- Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, who for nearly 40 years served as John Paul's personal secretary -- has stressed what he says are similarities between John Paul and Mother Teresa.
"One day, watching on TV Mother Teresa among her poor, he (John Paul) let slip the remark that she should have been made a saint while she was still alive ... but I thought that the same could have been said about him (John Paul), too," Dziwisz told Rome newspaper La Repubblica in a recent interview.
The two men began working together in their native, then communist-ruled, Poland before moving to Rome together following John Paul's election as pope in 1978.
From his Vatican vantage point, Dziwisz was able to witness firsthand what has been widely regarded as John Paul's momentous pontificate, the second longest recorded in history.
Among the highlights often cited are: John Paul's support for the pro-democracy movement in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe; and his many trips to developing countries, where he sought to strengthen the church's presence, while also drawing attention to the plight of the poor.
Many have also credited the late pontiff for promoting inter-faith dialogue, in particular seeking to improve Catholic ties with Jews and Muslims.
However, for some, such achievements need to be put into perspective against possible shortcomings in John Paul's leadership of the more than 1.1 billion-member Catholic Church.
Recent revelations of widespread abuse of children by priests and alleged attempts of a cover-up by senior clerics have also prompted prominent church members to question the pace of John Paul's progress toward sainthood.
Still, potential blots on John Paul's record appear distant from the concerns of those preparing to welcome his beatification.
Officials say Rome is ready to accommodate the roughly 1 million pilgrims expected to attend three days of ceremonies, including a vigil today at the ancient Circus Maximus and all-night prayer sessions in city-center churches.
Following the beatification Mass itself, which will be celebrated by Benedict, pilgrims will have a chance to file past a casket containing John Paul's remains, which will be set in front of the main altar of St Peter's Basilica.
The casket will be reinterred in the Chapel of St. Sebastian on the main level of the basilica in a private ceremony, which will occur only after the large crowds have stopped coming to pay their respects, the Vatican reported.
One more miracle?
Only one miracle stands between Pope John Paul II and sainthood. And that miracle might come from the Chicago area.
A longtime devotee of the late pope, Mary Kern of Lockport, Ill., credits his intercession for opening her eyes and restoring her vision for the past two years.
Convinced she has been cured of a neurological condition that repeatedly forced her eyelids closed without warning, she believes her recovery to be miraculous and petitioned the Vatican to prove it.
Meanwhile, Tony Zawila Jr., who has suffered from debilitating back pain since an accident severely injured his spine, prays for guidance and help from John Paul II, who Zawila said showed how to handle suffering throughout his life.
"If I were to be miraculously healed, I would give credit to John Paul 100 percent because I know he's my advocate," said Zawila, 30, of Chicago.
Zawila joins other Catholics traveling to Rome this week to celebrate the pope's beatification, the penultimate step before sainthood.
The designation follows the authentication of one miracle attributed to John Paul II only two months after his death: a French nun suddenly cured of Parkinson's disease.
For many Catholics, John Paul II's beatification honors more than the memory of a beloved religious leader.
The pageantry highlights belief in modern miracles -- works of God that defy explanation and contemporary medicine.
The ceremony also extols Catholic teaching that miracles happen every day and ordinary people can become extraordinary if they follow John Paul II's example and devote their lives to God.
After the ceremony Sunday, John Paul II will be considered "blessed" and can be publicly venerated in his native Poland.
Another miracle is needed to declare him a saint to be venerated around the world.
Many believe that second miracle won't take long.