Hundreds of thousands of Catholics are expected in Rome on Sunday to attend the beatification of John Paul II, who is widely recognised as one of the most influential religious leaders of the twentieth century and a driving force behind Europe's transition to post-communist rule.
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, Commission President José Manuel Barroso, his Vice-President Antonio Tajani and Parliament President Jerzy Buzek are all expected to attend the ceremony, EurAcitv has learned.
Former Pope John Paul II, who was born in 1920 in Poland as Karol Józef Wojtyła, was seen as instrumental in ending communism in his country and eventually in Europe.
The Vatican beatification ceremony is billed as a strictly religious event, and represents a major step on the road to declaring the former Pope a saint. With this in mind, the Vatican has confirmed that John Paul II worked a miracle by healing a French nun afflicted with Parkinson's disease.
Asked why President Barroso had opted to attend the beatification rite on International Labour Day, Commission spokesperson Olivier Bailly said today (28 April) that Barroso had answered favourably to this invitation in the same way as he attended Jonh Paul II's funeral in 2005.
"The reason is extremely simple. The Commission and the Commission president would like to pay tribute to the role played by John Paul II in European history and in the developments of democracy and freedom at the end of the twentieth century in Europe," he said.
No matter how religious the character of the ceremony, EU representatives wanted to pay homage to the role played by John Paul II in freeing Europe from communism, Bailly insisted.
"The Commission considers that John Paul II has played an outstanding role in opening up countries that were under the Soviet Union's yoke," he explained.
EurActiv spoke to the Vatican's services but could not obtain a full list of the EU heads of state and government expected to attend the beatification ceremony.
According to press reports, Polish President Bronisław Komorowski and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk are both planning to attend, as well as French Prime Minister François Fillon and Toomas Ilves, the president of Estonia.
The presence of the Polish leaders hardly comes as a surprise. According to Polish media reports, around 80,000 Poles are expected to attend the beatification of their illustrious compatriot.
But several other heads of state and government, including those of Catholic countries, appear to have opted to attend Labour Day-related events in their own countries instead.
The attendance of three of the EU's highest-ranking officials may come as a surprise to many. But there are deep-seated explanations for this. The strong Catholic roots of Council President Herman Van Rompuy are well known and Barroso comes from a pious Catholic country, Portugal. Meanwhile, Parliament President Buzek, although himself a protestant, is a compatriot of the former Pope and his presence was to be expected.
More significantly, all of them belong to the European People's Party (EPP), which has long been a forceful promoter of the EU's Christian roots and values.
French government spokesperson François Baroin commented on the presence of Prime Minister François Fillon in Rome by saying that "France is the elderly daughter of the Church".