Prague, 20 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Choirs sang and bells tolled on St. Peter's Square at the Vatican yesterday as Pope John Paul II conducted a formal ceremony beatifying Mother Teresa of Calcutta -- the Skopje-born nun who devoted her life to helping the poor and the dying.
Police estimate attendance at today's ceremony was about 300,000 -- making it one of the largest gatherings at the Vatican in recent years. Millions of Roman Catholics around the world also watched live television broadcasts of the event.
The crowd at St. Peter's Square burst into applause, and nuns from Mother Teresa's order broke into tears of joy, when an enormous portrait of Mother Teresa was unveiled.
Pope John Paul II opened the ceremony with a prayer for the nun, saying the Roman Catholic Church and its faithful will mark her memory on 5 September -- the day in 1997 that she died in her adopted home of Calcutta, India.
"We grant that Teresa of Calcutta may from now on be called beatified," the pope announced. Mother Teresa has been accorded one of the fastest beatification processes involving any individual in the recent history of the Roman Catholic Church. Beatification is a key step on the way to sainthood.
Normally, five years must pass between the death of a person and the start of formal beatification procedures. But for Mother Teresa, that process officially began in July 1999 -- less than two years after her death.
Journalists who report regularly from the Vatican say the Pope himself is thought to have sped up the process. Pope John Paul met Mother Teresa several times -- including during a 1986 visit to Calcutta, during which the pontiff let her ride in his "Popemobile" -- a glass-covered vehicle that usually transports only the pope, his secretary, and a local bishop. Pope John Paul has said that he held Mother Teresa in particularly high regard.
The Vatican already has credited the spirit of Mother Teresa with having performed one miracle, after a young girl in India who suffered from a tumor prayed to the famous nun and is said to have become cured. Mother Teresa must be credited with performing a second miracle before she can be proclaimed a saint. But many of Mother Teresa's followers attending today's ceremony say she is already a saint to them.
In India, thousands of believers from across the country gathered in the eastern city of Calcutta to pay tribute today.
Mother Teresa was born on 25 August 1910 as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu -- the daughter of a prosperous ethnic Albanian business family that had moved to Skopje from Kosovo before she was born. After becoming a nun and travelling to India to teach, Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity order in 1950. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1979.
During her life, Mother Teresa described herself as both an ethnic Albanian and a native of Skopje. In the Balkans today, there are bitter arguments between Macedonian Slavs, Vlachs, and ethnic Albanians over her lineage.
Sister Petra, a member of Mother Teresa's order who runs programs for the poor in Skopje, said the arguments are "very sad." Sister Petra said Mother Teresa "stood for love, for unity and for peace," adding that those who argue about Mother Teresa's ethnic background are fighting over things that are completely against her legacy.