VATICAN CITY - The news reached Maria Helena Pambo as she stood in line at St. Peter's Square to pray at the tomb of Pope John Paul II.

On a gloriously sunny afternoon, Pambo heard that the late pontiff is to be beatified this spring, barely six years after his death - the quickest anyone has been bestowed the honor in modern times. The Vatican announced Friday that his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, had approved the move.

"It's a day of joy," said Pambo, 34, a nun from Peru. "I never met John Paul II, but now that I live in Rome, every two or three days when I have some time off, I come to pray at his tomb. I ask him for help."

Tens of thousands of her fellow devotees are expected to converge on the square May 1, the first Sunday after Easter, for the beatification ceremony.

Replete with religious pomp and fervor, the event is expected to be a morale booster for an institution beleaguered by accusations of silence and duplicity in its handling of allegations of priestly abuse.

John Paul's elevation was set after Benedict certified the findings of a panel charged with verifying a miracle ascribed to the late pontiff, a prerequisite for beatification, which is an intermediate step toward sainthood.

Church-appointed investigators concluded that a French nun was miraculously cured of Parkinson's disease after praying to John Paul within weeks of his death April 2, 2005. He had suffered from the same ailment.

The Polish-born pontiff is now one step closer to being declared a saint. To qualify for that, a second miracle must be determined to have occurred at his posthumous intervention.

He was launched on the road to sainthood far sooner than usual: The Vatican's rules decree that a person must be dead for at least five years before the process leading to canonization can begin.

But soon after John Paul's death, Benedict declared he would waive the waiting period and initiate the process immediately, perhaps in response to the throngs of fervent followers who crowded St. Peter's Square for the pope's funeral, waving signs demanding "Sainthood now!"

Such a fast track to sainthood is unusual but not unprecedented. John Paul did the same for Mother Teresa, who died in 1997 and was beatified in 2003. His own elevation will beat hers for the title of quickest by days.

Cardinal Justin Rigali, archbishop of Philadelphia, said, "For me personally, it's just delightful news."

He added: "It's also a validation for the wonderful things he did during his pontificate." Rigali noted John Paul's extraordinary outreach over the years as he made 104 international trips to about 130 countries, including seven visits to the United States.

"He reached out in a very special way to the young people" around the world, Rigali said, and he made a "colossal effort" to greet people in their own language.

Rigali said he was "very happily surprised" that the announcement came this soon.

Marco Tosatti, a veteran Vatican-watcher, said the public outpouring of adulation for John Paul almost certainly influenced Benedict.

"If the Vatican had said, 'No, we don't have enough reasons to say he's a saint,' Catholic people would consider him a saint in spite of it. They don't need the Vatican seal of approval," said Tosatti, who writes for the Italian newspaper La Stampa. "The people considered him a saint even when he was still alive."

For millions, John Paul was an inspiring figure because of his staunch opposition to communism during the Cold War, his resilience after being wounded in a 1981 assassination attempt, and a common touch that endeared him to devotees during his trips around the world.

But there are critics, too, who note his strong opposition to female priests, abortion, and gay rights, and the fact that many of the cases of sexual molestation or physical abuse of minors by priests occurred during his 27-year papacy.

"The church hierarchy can avoid rubbing more salt into these wounds by slowing down their hasty drive to confer sainthood on the pontiff under whose reign most of the widely documented clergy sex crimes and cover-ups took place," Barbara Dorris, spokeswoman for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said in a statement from St. Louis.

Last year, some Vatican officials reportedly had doubts about the diagnosis and healing of the Parkinson's disease that afflicted Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, a nun who works in a hospital in Arles, France.

She had told church authorities that after other nuns had prayed to John Paul for her and after she herself had written down his name on a piece of paper, she awoke one morning in June 2005 free of the disabling pain that had made normal life impossible.

The Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints said Friday that its medical investigators had scrutinized the case carefully and concluded that the nun's recovery from the degenerative disease had no scientific explanation, in other words, that the miracle was genuine.

Interviewed Friday by French and Italian television, Sister Marie said John Paul "hasn't left me; he won't leave me until the end of my life."

Tosatti said 300 miracles had been attributed to John Paul since his death; and though the nun's case might not have been the strongest, the church apparently decided to stick with it.

At the end of 2009, Benedict gave formal recognition of John Paul's "heroic virtues" and granted him the title of "venerable." After his beatification, the late pontiff will be known as "blessed."