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Thousands Gather in Rome for Pope John Paul II's Beatification

Pilgrims wave a Polish flag and sing as they gather in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, April 30, 2011, a day before late Pope John Paul II's beatification

Thousands of pilgrims are gathering in Rome for Sunday's beatification of the late Pope John Paul II.

St. Peter's Square was filled with excitement Saturday despite steady rain.

The Vatican says at least 300,000 people are expected to attend the beatification. The St. Peter's Square ceremony will be the centerpiece of a three-day celebration that begins with a prayer vigil Saturday.

It is an important milestone on the road to Catholic sainthood for one of the most popular pontiffs in history.

During his 26 years as head of the Roman Catholic Church, John Paul II is credited with helping to bring down communism, energizing young Catholics and bolstering the church's presence in the developing world.

John Paul's successor, Pope Benedict, fast-tracked the canonization process -- instead of taking centuries, the Catholic Church will beatify the late pontiff just six years and 29 days after his death.

Benedict has proclaimed John Paul "Blessed" - the last step before sainthood - with proof that John Paul performed a miracle after death. The miracle was reported by French nun Marie Simon-Pierre, who said she was mysteriously cured from Parkinson's disease after she prayed to the late pontiff. John Paul suffered from the same illness. A second miracle must be attributed to John Paul before he can be declared a saint.

Sister Marie will appear with one of John Paul's closest aides, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, and longtime Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls at the prayer vigil at the Roman-era Circus Maximus stadium.

Before the beatification, John Paul's coffin was brought from a crypt below St. Peter’s Basilica and placed before the main altar for viewing.

After the beatification mass, Pope Benedict and cardinals will pray before the newly Blessed John Paul II. There also will be a Mass of Thanksgiving on May 2.

Opponents of the beatification believe the pope may have had a role in covering up the sexual abuse of children by priests. Other critics think he was too accepting of indigenous customs.

Some information for this report was provided by AP and AFP.