ABOVE: (Apr. 27, 2014) Never before have two former pontiffs been elevated to the status of saint at the same time. Retired Pope Benedict was also at the ceremony And as Stuart Greer explains, it was the first time two living popes have celebrated mass together.
VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis declared his two predecessors John XXIII and John Paul II saints before some 800,000 people on Sunday, an unprecedented ceremony made even more historic by the presence in St. Peter’s Square of emeritus Pope Benedict XVI.
Never before has a reigning and retired pope celebrated Mass together in public, much less at an event honouring two of their most famous predecessors.
Among the huge crowds were hundreds of Canadians who made the pilgrimage to Rome.
Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino led Canada’s official delegation of six MPs to honour the two new Papal saints.
WATCH: Skype chat with MP Fantino about Catholic Church saint canonization visit
Benedict’s presence was a reflection of the balancing act that Francis envisioned when he decided to canonize John and John Paul together, showing the unity of the Catholic Church by honouring popes beloved to conservatives and progressives alike.
Francis made that point clear in his homily, praising both men for their work associated with the Second Vatican Council, the groundbreaking meetings that brought the 2,000-year-old institution into modern times. John convened the council while John Paul helped ensure its more conservative implementation and interpretation.
“John XXIII and John Paul II co-operated with the Holy Spirit in renewing and updating the church in keeping with her pristine features, those features which the saints have given her throughout the centuries,” Francis said.
He praised John for having allowed himself to be led by God to call the council, and he hailed John Paul’s focus on the family – an issue Francis has taken up himself.
“They were priests, bishops and popes of the 20th century,” Francis said. “They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them.”
The atmosphere in St. Peter’s seemed sombre and subdued – perhaps due to the chilly grey skies and cumulative lack of sleep – unlike the rollicking party atmosphere of John Paul’s May 2011 beatification when bands of young people sang and danced in the hours before and after the Mass.
The Vatican estimated that 800,000 people watched the Mass in Rome, with about 500,000 in the square and nearby streets and the rest watching on TV screens that had been set up in piazzas around downtown.
By the time the ceremony began, Via della Conciliazione, the main boulevard leading from the square, nearby streets and the bridges across the Tiber were packed.
Polish pilgrims carrying the red and white flags of John Paul’s beloved homeland had been among the first to push into the square well before sunrise, as the human chains of neon-vested civil protection workers trying to maintain order finally gave up and let them in.
“Four popes in one ceremony is a fantastic thing to see and to be at, because it is history being written in our sight,” marveled one of the visiting Poles, Dawid Halfar.
Pope John XIII, who reigned from 1958-1963, is a hero to liberal Catholics for having convened Vatican II, which allowing Mass to be celebrated in local languages rather than Latin and encouraged greater dialogue with people of other faiths, particularly Jews.
During his quarter-century papacy from 1978-2005, John Paul II helped topple communism through his support of Poland’s Solidarity movement. His globe-trotting papacy and launch of the wildly popular World Youth Days invigorated a new generation of Catholics, while his defence of core church teaching heartened conservatives after the turbulent 1960s.
“John Paul was our pope,” said Therese Andjoua, a 49-year-old nurse who travelled from Libreville, Gabon, with some 300 other pilgrims to attend. She sported a traditional African dress bearing the images of the two new saints.
“In 1982 he came to Gabon and when he arrived he kissed the ground and told us to ‘Get up, go forward and be not afraid,”‘ she recalled as she rested against a pallet of water bottles. “When we heard he was going to be canonized, we got up.”
Kings, queens, presidents and prime ministers from more than 90 countries attended. Some 20 Jewish leaders from the U.S., Israel, Italy, Francis’ native Argentina and Poland were also taking part, in a clear sign of their appreciation for the great strides made in Catholic-Jewish relations under John, John Paul – and their successors celebrating their sainthood.
Monika Scislowska contributed from Krakow, Poland.
© The Canadian Press, 2014