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Pilgrims prepare for John Paul II ceremony

VATICAN CITY, Apr 30 – Thousands of excitable pilgrims swarmed into central Rome on Saturday on the eve of a ceremony to mark late pope John Paul II\’s step towards sainthood, as the Vatican geared up for the show.

"I couldn\’t miss this, I had to be a part of such a historical moment. We\’ve only just arrived but the atmosphere\’s great, it\’s really exciting," said Patricia Wocial, 48, who had come from Britain with her young daughters.

"It\’s their first pilgrimage and will certainly be an experience to remember," she added, as they stood among the crowds, gazing up at a vast poster of John Paul II hanging from the stone columns outside the Vatican.

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims are expected to descend on the Italian capital for Sunday\’s beatification, which will confer a "blessed" status on the charismatic pope, who died in 2005 after reigning for nearly 27 years.

In preparation, the late pope\’s coffin has been brought out of its resting place in a crypt under Saint Peter\’s basilica and a phial of John Paul\’s blood, taken from him during his illness, has been prepared as a relic for veneration.

At least 100,000 people are expected to attend a vigil on Saturday evening to hear those who were close to John Paul II speak. While some then head off to bed, others will take advantage of churches which are staying open all night.

Roguish peddlers have been hawking tacky souvenirs around the Vatican in the run-up to Sunday\’s ceremony including watches with the pope\’s face, snow globe paperweights and baseball hats and T-shirts reading "I Love JPII".

"We\’re planning to camp out at the vigil until midnight, then go from church to church to pray, before heading to the Vatican around 4:00 am (0200 GMT) to soak up the atmosphere and get the best seats possible," Wocial said.

While not all visitors to Rome have come for the ceremony -"I didn\’t even know it was happening, just look at the crowds" muttered one disgruntled American — upwards of 500,000 people are expected on Sunday.

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The beatification period was fast-tracked by the Vatican as mourners at John Paul II\’s funeral clamoured for him to be made saint, drowning out critics who accused him of having ignored Church ills such as corruption and paedophilia.

"The church hierarchy can avoid rubbing more salt into these wounds by slowing down their hasty drive to confer sainthood on the pontiff," the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) group said in a statement.

"In more than 25 years as the most powerful religious figure on the planet, John Paul II did almost nothing to safeguard kids," it said, adding that "most" of the abuses happened during John Paul\’s long pontificate.

After Sunday\’s beatification mass, which will be led by Pope Benedict in front of Saint Peter\’s and shown on big screens in the surrounding area, pilgrims will be able to file past John Paul II\’s coffin in the basilica.

The devoted will also be able to go and see a bloodied vest worn by the ex-pontiff when he was shot in an assassination attempt in 1981, which is set to go on show in the Daughter of Charity convent on the outskirts of Rome.

In order to set the late pope on the road to beatification, the Vatican had to confirm he had worked a miracle – the healing, apparently unexplainable by science, of a French nun affected by Parkinson\’s who had prayed to be cured.

Another miracle is needed before John Paul II can be declared a saint. Some pilgrims who had travelled to Rome for the ceremony said they had come not only to show their affection for the late pope but also to ask for his help.

"My mother is ill, I want the pope to heal her. I have him always in my heart," said 25-year old Kate, who had come from Poland with her local priest, two nuns and 40 friends who broke into song as they stood in St. Peter\’s Square.

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