By Philip Pullella and Catherine Hornby
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The late Pope John Paul II was moved a major step closer to sainthood on Sunday at a ceremony that drew about a million and a half people to Rome and was celebrated by Catholics around the world.
"From now on Pope John Paul II shall be called 'blessed,'" Pope Benedict proclaimed in Latin, bringing cheers to the largest crowd in Rome since John Paul's funeral six years ago.
Benedict praised his predecessor as a man who "restored to Christianity its true face as a religion of hope."
John Paul, who was the first non-Italian pontiff in 450 years and brought a message of peace to every continent on more than 100 foreign trips, died in 2005 and his sainthood cause was given fast-track treatment by his successor.
He is credited with having hastened the fall of communism in the East Bloc in 1989 because of his strong support for the Solidarity trade union in his native Poland, whose leader, Lech Walesa, was among the dignitaries in St Peter's Square.
In Poland, Prime Minister Donald Tusk said John Paul had brought about a "miracle" in the former communist country.
The crowd in Rome stretched as far back as the Tiber River, more than half a kilometer away. Devotees, many clinging to national flags, rosaries and water bottles as they sang, thronged the Vatican from all directions from before dawn.
Many camped out during the night near the square, which was bedecked with 27 posters illustrating each year of his pontificate, and his most famous sayings, "Do not be afraid!"
"STRENGTH OF A TITAN"
In his homily, Benedict noted that the late pope, whom he praised as having had "the strength of a titan" and who gave millions of people "the strength to believe," had blessed crowds thousands of times from his window overlooking the same square.
"Bless us now," Benedict said in unprepared remarks. He announced that his predecessor's feast day would be October 22, the day of the inauguration of John Paul's pontificate in 1978.
The crowd cheered as a tapestry showing a smiling John Paul was unveiled. Dozens of red and white Polish flags bobbed in the crowd and applause went up when Poles released a banner reading "Thank You, God" in Latin and held aloft by red balloons.
"We were at the funeral and we just had to be here to see him beatified," said Jan Skibinski, 40, who drove 29 hours with his family from their home near the border with Belarus.
A place of honor was reserved for Sister Marie Simon-Pierre Normand, a French nun who suffered from Parkinson's disease but whose inexplicable cure has been attributed to John Paul's intercession with God to perform a miracle, thus providing the grounds for his beatification.
After the proclamation, Normand held up a silver reliquary with a vial of blood taken from the pope in the last few days of his life in case it was needed for a transfusion.
The Vatican will have to attribute another miracle to John Paul's intercession after the beatification in order for him to be declared a saint.
He was beatified on the day the Church celebrates the Feast of Divine Mercy, which this year fell on May 1, coinciding with the most important workers' holiday in the communist world. The timing was ironic, given the role of the Polish pope in the fall of communism in his homeland and across eastern Europe.
DELEGATIONS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
Some 90 delegations from around the world, including members of five European royal families and 16 heads of state, attended the beatification, which was the center of a massive security operation involving thousands of soldiers and police.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who has been widely criticized for human rights abuses in his country, attended. He is banned from traveling to the European Union, but the Vatican -- a sovereign state -- is not a member of the bloc.
Pope John Paul II's coffin was exhumed on Friday from the crypts below St Peter's Basilica and was placed in front of the main altar. It will remain there and the basilica will stay open until all visitors who want to view it have done so.
Benedict was the first to pay respect before the wooden coffin, which had reproduction of a 9th century book of the gospels placed on it.
It will then be moved to a new crypt under an altar in a side chapel near Michelangelo's statue of the Pieta. The marble slab that covered his first burial place will be sent to Poland.
John Paul's beatification set a new speed record for modern times, taking place six years and one month after his death.
While the overwhelming majority of Catholics welcome it, a minority are opposed, with some saying it happened too fast.
Liberals in the church say John Paul was too harsh with theological dissenters who wanted to help the poor, particularly in Latin America. Some say he should be held responsible for sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic church, because they occurred or came to light when he was in charge.
Ultra-conservatives say he was too open toward other religions and that he allowed the liturgy to be "infected" by local cultures, such as African dancing, on his trips abroad.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)