From nearly the beginning of his 26-year papacy, John Paul II was known as Mexico's pope, visiting Latin America's second-largest Roman Catholic country more often than any other nation except his native Poland and France. In an irony on the eve of one of his final steps to sainthood, it is also the country his critics point to in arguing against canonizing the popular pope who died in 2005.
Vatican watchers have said the greatest failure of Karol Wojtyla's papacy was the scandal of the Legionaries of Christ, a conservative order that the pope praised as a model of orthodoxy but whose Mexican founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, was later revealed to have sexually abused seminarians and fathered three children.
"It is an enormous disappointment in Mexico, and it is a paradoxical disappointment," said Bernardo Barranco of Mexico's Center for Religious Studies.
But with the approach of Sunday's beatification ceremony _ the next-to-last step to becoming a saint in the Catholic Church _ even Mexicans disillusioned by the Maciel scandal have not let it taint their image of the iconic pope. Defenders of John Paul say he was duped by Maciel like everyone else.
"Mexico identified with the pope right from the start," Barranco said. "Mexico is a country that was devoted to him."
President Felipe Calderon is traveling to the Vatican to attend the ceremony, while Mexicans at home will mark the beatification with a series of events starting Saturday afternoon and stretching late into the night Mexico time, when the ceremony will be shown live on giant TV screens at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
"Pope John Paul II felt the power of faith among a people who exploded with expressions of jubilation, of multitudes who cried out their love," Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, archbishop of Mexico City, said during a recent ceremony honoring the late pontiff.
He was the first pope to visit Mexico when he came in 1979 _ the first foreign trip of his papacy _ drawing a total of 20 million people to gatherings in various cities. In each of his four following visits, the last in 2002, masses flocked just to catch a glimpse of him passing on the street.
"How wonderful it was when we heard that the blessed pope was coming. The heart rejoiced," said Julia Perez Matias, 66, who got to see John Paul during one of his visits to Mexico in the 1990s.
At his bronze statue outside the basilica, tourists take photographs and Catholics such as Maria Dolores Rodriguez Perez, 71, pray.
"He is a saint," Rodriguez said. "He makes miracles happen."
But petitioners against the beatification have cited the Maciel case as one the church's most damaging scandals that the pope and his advisers ignored for years.
Maciel founded the Legion of Christ, an influential order in Mexico that John Paul strongly supported despite the allegations of sexual abuse dating back to the 1950s.
The beloved pope called Maciel "an efficacious guide to youth" in a letter published in Mexican newspapers in 1994. Maciel also traveled to the Vatican frequently and was with the pope on his visits in Mexico in 1979, 1990 and 1993.
The first accusations of abuse against Maciel from decades earlier surfaced in 1997 when a group of victims sent a letter to John Paul and later filed a canon law case in the Vatican.
Despite the allegations, Maciel wasn't sentenced canonically and ordered out of active ministry to a lifetime of penance and prayer until 2006, a year after John Paul died.
Maciel died in 2008 without admitting any wrongdoing.
Two years later, the Legionaries said Maciel had fathered two sons and a daughter.
As well as being the day for John Paul's beatification, Sunday is the one-year anniversary of the Vatican's unprecedented move to take over the Legion of Christ. Its own investigation concluded Maciel created a "power system" built on silence, deceit and obedience that enabled him to lead a double life "devoid of any scruples and authentic sense of religion."
Javier Bravo, spokesman for the Legionaries of Christ in Mexico, did not respond to requests for an interview about the beatification.
"John Paul II refused to initiate any investigation into Maciel's conduct despite mounting evidence of abominable crimes which, thanks to worldwide publicity, are now the most notorious ever committed by a Catholic cleric," said a statement in U.S. publication "The Remnant," signed by people across the world questioning the beatification.
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's powerful secretary of state under John Paul, has been accused in particular of having been Maciel's most ardent protector and supporter in Rome, at one point allegedly shutting down the canonical process against him.
Asked Thursday in Rome to comment on the Legion scandal, Sodano told The Associated Press that it wasn't the time to speak about it.
"How can you, in a such a great moment, get into such peripheral issues when the world is applauding the pope?" Sodano said on the sidelines of a Vatican exhibit honoring the late pope. "I'm stunned."
Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.