ROME -- In one of the most hotly debated acts of his papacy, Pope John Paul II beatified the Spanish founder of the conservative Opus Dei religious movement yesterday, elevating Monsignor Jose Maria Escriva de Balaguer to a status just short of sainthood, 17 years after his death.
The crowd overflowing St. Peter's Square numbered more than 200,000 and was one of the biggest ever seen at the Vatican -- testimony to the reach and influence that inspire many liberal Catholics to label Opus Dei a sinister and powerful force for conservatism in the church and elsewhere.
At the same ceremony, the pope also conferred beatification, the penultimate step before sainthood, on a Sudanese nun, Giuseppina Bakhita, who had once been enslaved by an Italian diplomat and later joined an Italian religious order.
But the principal focus was on Opus Dei, which means the Work of God in Latin, and the man who founded it in 1928.
The 2 1/2 -hour ceremony was the culmination of months of bitter argument among Roman Catholics across Europe and the United States.
The organization's detractors maintain that because of pressure from Opus Dei and its followers in high religious and secular circles, the process of beatification was rushed and incomplete.
They also maintain that it ignored or hid aspects of Monsignor Escriva's character that had nothing to do with the "heroic virtue" that must be proved before a person qualifies for the title of "Blessed" bestowed with beatification.
The organization bitterly disputes the accusations leveled against it -- principally that it is a secretive cult with undue influence -- and against its founder, whom former members have labeled vain, bad-tempered and anti-Semitic.
Opus Dei representatives also say his beatification proceeded with relative speed because it was the first undertaken under new rules approved by Pope John Paul that streamline the process.
Yesterday's ceremony represented a major triumph for Opus Dei over its critics and reaffirmed the widely held view that the pope himself is sympathetic to the 75,000-member organization because of its doctrinal orthodoxy and discipline.