RALEIGH, N.C. — When Pope John Paul II takes the penultimate step to sainthood Sunday, the event will be celebrated in cathedrals, high schools and homes by American Roman Catholics who revere the Polish pontiff like none before him.
Other American Catholics see the occasion as a reminder that the charismatic, globe-trotting pope was a better leader for the world at large than for his own flock.
John Paul II has been dead for only six years, but his 27-year tenure as leader of the Church is being harkened to by believers as a golden age, when Catholicism faced down Soviet Communism and won admirers from all faiths. They see the scheduled beatification in Rome as the obvious way to recognize the man referred to by many as John Paul the Great.
"It's a huge deal, especially here in the U.S., in this secularized culture that we're moving towards, what he called the culture of death," said Justin Braga, 28, of Waltham, Mass. "He was standing up against that. He wanted to maintain the sacredness of things."
The focus on the first pope to truly harness the global media is a welcome break for many Catholics weary of fights over doctrine and politics, and the still-raw anger generated by the sexual abuse scandals of the past decade. For some Catholics, John Paul II's papacy is inseparable from those troubles.
"There are lots of people saying he was a great pope for the world but not nearly as great a pope for the Church," said Thomas Groome, chairman of Boston College's department of religious education and pastoral ministry. "Many Catholics feel he did not embrace the spirit of renewal and reform heralded by the Second Vatican Council."
Beatification is the next-to-last step before a Catholic is formally declared a saint, meaning the Church teaches that person is definitely in heaven. To be beatified, which confers the title "blessed," a person's life has to stand up to a thorough investigation, and one miracle has to be attributed to the candidate. There's normally a five-year waiting period between a candidate's death and when the process begins, but Pope Benedict XVI waived that for his predecessor.
John Paul II won't become a saint until he's canonized, which requires the documentation of another miracle, usually a cure for an illness that medical science can't explain. A beatified person can be venerated in local churches, but saints can be celebrated anywhere in the world.
John Paul II himself was an enthusiastic promoter of sainthood and beatification. He streamlined the process to make canonization move faster, celebrated canonizations all over the world and named more saints than all the popes in the previous 400 years combined.
"He understood that there's nothing like a canonization to fire up the faithful," said Justin Catanoso, a North Carolina journalist and author of My Cousin the Saint, about his relative Gaetano Catanoso, who was beatified and named a saint by John Paul II. "It's just a gorgeous ritual."
Saints play an important role in the lives of Catholics, who believe they serve not just as models of holiness but as advocates for the faithful. Catholics don't worship saints but ask the saints to intercede for them with God.
Barb Verly of Marshall, Minn., began praying for help from John Paul II after her 20-year-old son was diagnosed with brain cancer, which has now been in remission for over a year.
"The day John Paul died, I knew I wasn't praying for him, the way I pray for other people when they die," she said. "I knew that I was praying to him, that he was standing there next to Jesus, interceding."
Verly joined the Church in 1971, when she was 20, and she said John Paul ultimately helped make the transition much easier.
"Growing up Protestant, the pope was one of those things that was really hard to understand, but John Paul, he just radiated this love and a deep spiritualness that people responded to," she said.
His enduring popularity can be partially gauged in the enthusiasm greeting his beatification. Masses are being offered in dioceses across the country, and Catholic bookstores are putting out special displays tied to the beatification.
At least 30 schools around the country are named for John Paul II, with several hosting special Masses, art shows or other programs to coincide with the event in Rome. A delegation of faculty members from Pope John Paul II High School in Hendersonville, Tenn., outside Nashville, has left for Rome, said Headmaster Faustin Weber.
"I am obviously pleased that our namesake is being beatified and believe, with many others, that his canonization will soon follow," Weber said.
But the bond between a Polish pope focused on the problems of Eastern Europe under Communist domination and the American public isn't necessarily a natural one. John Paul II worked to develop that kinship by frequent travel and turning his attention to young people, a group previously overlooked by many popes and religious leaders.
"So many people have more firsthand experience with him than they did with any other pope," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "He got to the heartland as well as the great metropolises, and I think that touched people."
The pope visited the United States seven times from 1979 to 1999, Des Moines, Iowa; Denver and Columbia, S.C.. He also created World Youth Day, a pilgrimage that draws hundreds of thousands of young Catholics to locations around the world.
But the last years of his papacy coincided with the sexual abuse crisis that engulfed first the American church, and then Catholics around the world. For believers like those in the group Voice of the Faithful, John Paul II's legacy includes a failure to deal adequately with not only allegations of sexual abuse by priests, but with bishops who transferred clergymen to new assignments rather than confront the problem.
"At Mass, we ask forgiveness for 'what I have done and what I have failed to do,'" said Clare Keane of Winchester, Mass., a member of the group. "One thing he failed to do was crack down on known sexual predators."
For millions of American Catholics, though, the name John Paul II still conjures images of the vast crowds gathered in stadiums for Mass, the fall of the Berlin Wall and a robust defense of traditional church teaching on everything from sexual morality to the Virgin Mary.
"He made Christianity interesting and compelling at a moment when many in the Western world imagined that they had 'outgrown' the 'need' for religious faith," wrote George Weigel, author of two biographies of John Paul II, in an email from Rome.