In an historic ceremony Pope Francis proclaimed former Popes John Paul II and John XXIII saints today while Pope emeritus Benedict XVI sat on the side of the altar. It was a four-pope mega event– the first time two popes presided over the canonization mass of two other popes.
Associated Press Television had crews working all night long to cover the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who had descended on Rome eager to get front row seat.
Pilgrims arrived at dawn racing down the Via Della Conciliazione — the road leading from the Tiber River to Saint Peter’s Square–desperate to get a spot in the square. Most of them had spent the night awake, either at prayer vigils around Rome, or sleeping on air mattresses and in sleeping bags on the cobblestoned streets and piazzas around the Vatican.
I spoke to a few of them as they were still waiting to be let into the square:
Michelle Kassis from Beirut Lebanon was slowly moving her way forward towards Saint Peter’s Square, a small Lebanese flag in her hand. She said she was there for John Paul II because, “In Lebanon we really love this Pope, he came to visit Lebanon, he gave us so many messages of love and he brought Lebanon to the entire world, because as you know Lebanon is an Arab country and it is very rare that they see us as dedicated Christians.”
Josephine McManus from Ireland was at the edge of the square eagerly waiting the canonization. She recalled her memories of both the Popes to be made saints,”I was a child when John Paul XXIII was up on a picture frame at home. When John Paul II came to Ireland, I was expecting my fourth child, and I couldn’t get to see him so I am here now in person to see him canonized as Saint.”
Osvaldo Moreno from Mexico was waiting behind a barrier to see if he could get a spot in the square. He said he had been up all night, “”We have been here since 10pm last night, we tried to sleep on the ground wherever we could but we are doing what we can, but I haven’t gotten any sleep and here we are doing are best to see him (John Paul II).”
While the pilgrims fought for a place in the piazza, the dignitaries were brought in through the basilica by the Papal Gentleman. There were Kings and Queens, President and Prime Ministers from 90 countries among the delegation. Queen Sofia of Spain was there in an elaborate white outfit with head-dress. Only Queens can wear white in the Pope’s presence. There was also Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe who never misses a big event at the Vatican.
For past few days the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica has been decorated with two enormous banners with the gentle faces of Pope John Paul II and John XXIII both in bright red capes.
Just minutes before the canonization was to begin, 87-year-old Pope emeritus Benedict XVI emerged from St. Peter’s Basilica dressed all in white with a mitre on his head. He was warmly greeted by the Cardinals who bent to kiss his ring. When Pope Francis finally came out of the Basilica he also walked to the former Pope and hugged him. By that time, Benedict was no longer wearing the mitre.
Pope Francis appeared sombre and tired. It was his decision to canonize John Paul II, a hero of Catholic conservatives, together with John XXIII, a hero to progressives. He had apparently urged a subdued ceremony. But the crowd was all but subdued, they sang, cheered, danced and waved banners and flags– in a massive celebration.
The Vatican press office said there were 500,000 pilgrims in and around Saint Peter’s Square and another 300,000 watching the event at the Coliseum and on mega-screens at other locations around the city.
During his homily Pope Francis described John Paul II and John XXIII saying, “They were priests, bishops and popes of the twentieth century. They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them,” adding, “This is also the image of the Church which the Second Vatican Council set before us. John XXIII and John Paul II cooperated with the Holy Spirit in renewing and updating the Church…”
Most of the pilgrims I spoke to were there for John Paul II, but there were also some members of the Roncalli family, descendants of Pope John XXIII.
I covered Pope John Paul II for the last ten years of his life and some of my memories of that are in this blog post: Covering John Paul II.
John Paul II was elected in 1978 at age 58 and became one of the longest serving Popes, 26 years until he died in April 2005. Over that time he became the most travelled Pope in history visiting 120 countries.
John Paul II was an astute politician in addition to a religious figure. He is considered to have been key in toppling Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe beginning with his first visit to Poland in 1979. He was treated like a rock star when he travelled to Latin America in the early years of his papacy. When it came to social doctrine, John Paul II was a staunch conservative, opposing birth control, euthanasia, women priests and homosexuality.
In sharp contrast John XXIII had a very short papacy, lasting only five years from 1958 to 1963, but during that short time he launched the Second Vatican Council, a meeting of church leaders from around the globe, that would revolutionize the church, bringing it into the modern world. He is considered the father behind such progressive ideas as eliminating the Latin Mass and allowing priests to say mass in their local language making it more accessible to the faithful. The council also vastly improved the Catholic church’s relationship with the Jews. John XXIII, then Angelo Roncalli, is credited with saving thousands of Jews from the Holocaust when he was the Papal envoy to Turkey in World War II.
John XXIII is probably most famous for what is known as his “speech to the moon” when he came to the window of the Apostolic apartment the October night in 1963 before the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Speaking to a crowd of people holding candles in the square below he said, ” “Going home, you will find your children. Give them a caress and tell them ‘This is the caress of the pope,'”
It was this simplicity, the naturalness of a parish priest, rather than the stiff formality of earlier Popes that gained John XXIII such wide popularity. This week, many people I interviewed said Pope Francis’ style remind them of the simplicity of John XXIII.
After presiding over the canonization with a stern expressive on his face, Pope Francis seemed to spring to life as he got in the Pope-mobile at the end of the event and was driven through the crowd greeting the faithful who went wild with excitement.