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Sister Marie Simon-Pierre speaks with the media during a press conference at Aix-en-Provence's archbishopric.

At Pope John Paul II’s funeral in 2005, the crowd at the Vatican chanted in unison “Santo Subito!” for one of the most beloved pontiffs in history to be made a saint immediately.

Five and half years and a thorough investigation later, Pope Benedict XVI has “signed off” after declaring that a French nun’s recovery from Parkinson’s disease was the miracle needed for John Paul to be beatified. A second miracle is needed to be canonized a saint.

Pope Benedict himself will preside at the May 1, 2011 ceremony, which falls on the feast of the Divine Mercy. The choice of the date is not accidental.  Pope John Paul II has a deep devotion to his fellow Pole Sr. Faustina Kowalska and to the Divine Mercy devotion identified with her. In August 2002, in Lagiewniki, Poland where Sr. Faustina lived and died, John Paul II entrusted the entire world  “to Divine Mercy, to the unlimited trust in God the Merciful.”

It is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to Rome for a precedent-setting Mass: Never before has a pope beatified by his immediate predecessor.

Although the numbers may not reach the 3 million who flocked here for John Paul’s funeral, religious tour operators in his native Poland were already preparing to bus and fly in the faithful to celebrate a man many considered a saint while he was alive.

“We have waited a long time and this is a great day for us,” said Mayor Ewa Filipiak of John Paul’s hometown of Wadowice, where the faithful lit candles Friday and prayed at a chapel in the town church dedicated to John Paul.

After four years of suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre was completely cured some two months after the Pope passed away.

After praying to John Paul II, the nun said, she awoke one morning, to the shock of her doctor, feeling reborn and capable of performing previously difficult tasks, such as walking and writing.

“I was sick, and now I am cured,” Simon-Pierre said at a March 30, 2007, press conference in Aix-en-Provence, France. “I am cured, but it is up to the church to say whether it was a miracle or not.”

Wearing a white habit and wire-rimmed glasses, she appeared in good health and showed no signs of tremors or slurred speech, common symptoms of Parkinson’s.

“John Paul II did everything he could for life, to defend life,” she said. “He was very close to the smallest and weakest. How many times did we see him approach a handicapped person, a sick person?” Simon-Pierre said John Paul was and continues to be an inspiration to her because of his defense of the unborn and because they both suffered from Parkinson’s.

A March 2010 article in the Guardian reported that John Paul II’s sainthood had been “set back” by accounts that Simon-Pierre had again fallen ill. The Episcopal Conference of France disputed the relapse as rumor, however, stating that Simon-Pierre was fully recovered from Parkinson’s.

To qualify as a miracle, Simon-Pierre’s recovery required an intense evaluation, including psychiatric and multiple neurological screenings.

“We conducted a serious and objective investigation which led us to the conclusion that what had happened was unexplainable,” Aix-en-Provence Archbishop Claude Feidt said in March 2007.  “We cannot understand why she is the way you can see her today.”

According to the same Guardian report, a Polish daily newspaper, Rzeczpospolita, said at least one doctor assigned to evaluating Simon-Pierre’s case proposed that she may have been afflicted with another nervous disease — not Parkinson’s — that can enter sudden remission.

Simon-Pierre continues her work as a nurse at a maternity hospital run by her order, the Little Sisters of Catholic Motherhood.

Born as Karol Wojtyla in 1920, John Paul was the youngest pope in 125 years and the first non-Italian in 455 years when he was elected pontiff in 1978.

He brought a new vitality to the Vatican, and quickly became the most accessible modern pope, sitting down for meals with factory workers, skiing and wading into crowds to embrace the faithful.

His Polish roots nourished a doctrinal conservatism — opposition to contraception, euthanasia, abortion and female priests — that rankled liberal Catholics in the United States and Western Europe.

But his common touch also made him a crowd-pleasing, globe-trotting superstar whose papacy carried the Catholic Church into Christianity’s third millennium and emboldened eastern Europeans to bring down the communist system.

He survived an assassination attempt in St. Peter’s Square in 1981 — and promptly forgave the Turk who had shot him.

After suffering for years from the effects of Parkinson’s, he died in his Vatican apartment on April 2, 2005. He was 84.

Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, John Paul’s most trusted friend and aide who was at his bedside that night, gave thanks Friday from Krakow, where he is archbishop.

“We are happy that this process came to an end, that what people asked for — “Santo subito” — was fulfilled,” Dziwisz said. “I express great joy on behalf of the entire diocese of Krakow — and I think I am also authorized to express this on behalf of all of Poland.”

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