Leading Poles including former president Lech Walesa last Friday hailed the Vatican decision to beatify the late Polish-born Pope John Paul II on May 1.

“I am doubly happy. Firstly, because a man who was a living saint will officially become a saint. Our Pope did great things,” anti-communist Solidarity trade union founder Walesa told AFP.

“Without him, there would have been no Solidarity in Poland. It was the Polish pope and Solidarity that contributed to the disappearance of communism in Europe in the 20th century,” he said.

Historians agree that the 1978 election of Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla to the papacy inspired the rise of Poland’s 10 millionstrong anti-communist Solidarity movement in 1980.

By 1989, under Walesa’s leadership, Solidarity negotiated a peaceful end to communism in Poland, making it the first country in the Soviet bloc to eschew the system.

By 1991, the Soviet Union crumbled putting an end to the bi-polar world of the Cold War.

“It’s possible that our great friend, once he becomes a saint, will help us from on high to solve our problems in Poland, Europe and the world,” Walesa said last Friday.

In the southern city of Krakow Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the late pope’s former personal secretary and one of his closest friends for 40 years, said Poland was “overjoyed”.

“Speaking in the name of the diocese, in the name of Krakow and, I think, in the name of all of Poland, I’m overjoyed,” Mgr Dziwisz told reporters in the city where John Paul II served as a cardinal.

“I want to express my great gratitude to the Holy Father for the decree necessary for this beatification,” Mgr Dziwisz said.

John Paul II is to be beatified on May 1 – a key step on the path to sainthood – the Vatican announced last Friday after his successor Pope Benedict XVI signed an official decree.

“Personally, I’m overwhelmed by it, even though I knew him since almost my youth (...) When the news arrived, I felt overwhelmed that John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla, will be beatified and canonised.”

“It’s an incredible feeling: I’ve understood how a husband whose wife has been canonised must feel,” Mgr Dziwisz added.

The process of beatification is usually lengthy, but calls for John Paul to be canonised came immediately after his death in April 2005 at the Vatican, at the age of 84.

Pope Benedict himself will conduct the ceremony in St Peter’s Basilica, according to Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi.

May 1 falls this year on the first Sunday after Easter, which is the Feast of the Divine Mercy, a devotion promoted by John Paul II.

Italian media had suggested the beatification ceremony would take place on Sunday, April 3, the day after the sixth anniversary of John Paul’s death.

But Lombardi said that the date fell during Lent, traditionally a period of penitence for the Church as it commemorates the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert, and “was not the ideal time” for a “joyous” ceremony.

Works are underway in St Peter’s Basilica to make space for Pope John Paul II’s tomb. As is traditional, the pope’s remains will be moved up from the crypt to the nave of the basilica after he is beatified.

Preparations are being made in the Chapel of St Sebastian, on the right-hand side of the nave, between the Chapel of Michelangelo’s Pietà and the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament.

The ex-pontiff’s body “will not be displayed, it will be placed in a tomb closed by a simple marble tombstone with the words: Beatus Ioannes Paulus II,” (Blessed John Paul II), Lombardi said.

The beatification follows the announcement last week that the Congregation of the Causes for Saints had approved the Polish pope’s first miracle. The commission confirmed that French nun Marie Simon-Pierre was miraculously cured of Parkinson’s disease through the intercession of John Paul II.