VATICAN CITY (AP) _ Pope John Paul II on Sunday beatified 44 martyrs, honoring them as courageous models for today's Catholics, often struggling with sagging faith.

Beatification is the last formal step before the process of sainthood can begin.

Among those declared blessed during the ceremony in St. Peter's Square was Vietnam's first martyr, Andre de Phu Yen. He baptized at 15 and was beheaded three years later in 1644 when he refused to renounce Christianity.

``May all the disciples of Christ find in him the strength and support in trial,'' John Paul said, trying to encourage the present-day flock in Vietnam, a predominantly Buddhist nation which has the largest Catholic community in Southeast Asia outside of the Philippines.

The Vatican has been at odds at times with Vietnamese authorities over Hanoi's insistence on having final say over the naming of bishops. The Vatican is trying to improve relations with the communist-led country with an eye on a possible papal visit.

Looking tired during the more than 2 1/2-hour ceremony, the pope praised Maria Stella Adela Mardosewicz and 10 fellow nuns who were summoned by the Gestapo in 1943 and shot to death in woods outside the town of Nowogrodek.

The women had offered up their lives in exchange for sparing dozens of families, who, instead, were either deported to work camps in Germany or released immediately. All the families survived World War II.

Shoring up sometimes flagging faith by Catholics who have at times doubted church teaching, such as bans on birth control and premarital sex, is a key goal of John Paul.

``Although they lived in historic moments far apart and in very different cultural contexts,'' the pope said of the 44 Catholics he honored, ``they are brought together by an identical experience of loyalty to Christ and to the church.''

Filipinos among the tens of thousands of faithful who turned out for the beatification were perhaps the most enthusiastic cheerers throughout the ceremony, especially when the pope proclaimed the beatification of Pedro Calungsod, a Filipino who was killed at age 17 during a 1672 expedition by Spanish Jesuit missionaries on Guam.

Also beatified were two priests Andre de Soveral and Ambrosio Francisco Ferro and 28 others, including laity, who were tortured and killed in Brazil in 1645 during warfare between Portuguese and Spanish Catholics and Dutch Calvinists.

The other martyr beatified on Sunday was Nicolas Bunkerd Kitbamrung, a Thai missionary priest who died in 1944 in a Burmese prison. Three years earlier, he had been arrested and accused of spying for the French.

Usually a miracle is required before a Catholic can be beatified, but in the case of martyrs this requirement is waived.

Eager to give Catholic new role models, John Paul has beatified or canonized more than 1,200 candidates since he became pope in 1978. That is about as many people as had been beatified or canonized from the early 17th century until his papacy.