By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The late Pope John Paul II moved a big step closer to Roman Catholic sainthood on Friday when his successor approved a decree attributing a miracle to him and announced that he will be beatified on May 1.
The ceremony in St Peter's Square marking the last step before sainthood is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people, harkening back to the funeral of the charismatic pope in 2005, one of the biggest media events of the new century.
His coffin will be moved beforehand from its present location in the Vatican crypts and placed under an altar in a chapel in St Peter's Basilica so more people can pay homage.
"This will be an extraordinary event ... he really deserves it, he was a man who really did great things and was recognized by the whole world," said Italian tourist Mario Corona, who was visiting a Polish community church near the Vatican.
John Paul's 27-year papacy was one of the most historic and tumultuous of modern times. During his pontificate, communism collapsed across eastern Europe, starting in his native Poland.
Church officials have said the miracle attributed to the intercession of John Paul with God concerned Sister Marie Simon-Pierre Normand, a 49-year-old French nun diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, from which the pope himself had suffered.
She said her illness inexplicably disappeared two months after his death when she and her fellow nuns prayed to him.
Church-appointed doctors concluded that there was no medical explanation for the healing of the nun, although last year there were some doubts about the validity of the miracle.
A further miracle occurring after the beatification ceremony -- which confers the title "Blessed" on John Paul -- must be approved before he can be canonized, or made a saint.
Crowds at John Paul's funeral on April 8, 2005 chanted "Santo subito!" ("Make him a saint right now!").
In May 2005, a month after his death, Benedict put John Paul on the fast track by dispensing with Church rules that normally impose a five-year waiting period after a candidate's death before the procedure that leads to sainthood can start.
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The period between his death and beatification is one of the shortest on record in Church history.
"There is no doubt he will enter history as one of the greatest popes. His legacy, from theological contributions to the work he did that helped end Communism and brought freedom and unity to Europe ... is full of tremendous accomplishments," said Carl Anderson, head of the U.S-based Knights of Columbus, one of the world's largest Catholic charity groups.
But not everyone was happy about the announcement. Victims of sexual abuse by priests said the late pope failed to recognize the extent of the problem.
SNAP, a U.S.-based group of people abused by priests when they were children, criticized "a hasty drive to confer sainthood on the pontiff under whose reign most of the widely documented clergy sex crimes and cover-ups took place".
The first non-Italian pope in some 450 years, he was almost killed in a 1981 assassination attempt, which some historians believe was ordered by the secret services of the former Soviet Union to stop John Paul's support of freedom in Poland.
Known as the globetrotting pope because he visited every corner of the world in more than 100 trips, he died on April 2, 2005, after a long struggle with failing health. (Editing by Alastair Macdonald)