|Pope Francis leads the canonisation Mass of Popes John XXIII (pictured on tapestry top right) and John Paul II (pictured on tapestry top left) at St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Sunday. (AFP)
Vatican City, April 27 (AP): Pope Francis declared Popes John XXIII and John Paul II saints before some 800,000 people today in an unprecedented ceremony made even more historic by the presence of emeritus Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter’s Square.
Never before have a reigning Pope and a retired Pope celebrated Mass together in public, much less at an event honouring two of their most famous predecessors.
Benedict’s presence was a reflection of the balancing act that Francis envisioned when he decided to canonise John and John Paul together, showing the unity of the Catholic Church by honouring popes beloved by conservatives and progressives alike.
Francis made that point clear in his homily, praising both new saints 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 in 1962 while John Paul helped ensure its more conservative implementation and interpretation.
The Pope 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.”
It was Benedict who put John Paul on the fast-track for possible sainthood just weeks after he died in 2005, responding to the chants of “Santo Subito!” or “Sainthood Now!” that erupted during his funeral Mass. His canonisation is now the fastest in modern history.
Francis then tweaked the Vatican’s own saint-making rules, deciding that John could be made a saint alongside him without the necessary second miracle usually required for canonisation.
Francis took a deep breath and paused for a moment before reciting the saint-making formula in Latin at the start of the ceremony, as if moved by the history he was about to make in canonising two Popes at once.
He said that after deliberating, consulting and praying for divine assistance “we declare and define that Blessed John XXIII and John Paul II be saints and we enrol them among the saints, decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole church”.
Applause broke out from a crowd that stretched from St. Peter’s to the Tiber River and beyond.
In John Paul’s native Poland, bells rang out as soon as Francis pronounced the two men saints.
Hundreds of red and white Polish flags filled the square and the streets surrounding the Vatican, which were strewn with sleeping bags, backpacks and folding chairs. “For years Pope John Paul II took the Church to the ends of the earth and today the ends of the earth have come back here,” said Father Tom Rosica from Canada.
About 850 cardinals and bishops celebrated the Mass with the pope and 700 priests were on hand to distribute communion to the huge crowd.
The atmosphere in St. Peter’s seemed sombre and subdued — perhaps because of the chilly grey skies and cumulative lack of sleep of many of the pilgrims who camped out on the streets near the Vatican or stayed up praying at all-night vigils.
Spirits did pick up after the service when Francis drove through the crowds in his open-topped car all the way down to the Tiber River.
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 town.
“Four Popes in one ceremony is a fantastic thing to see and to be at, because it is history being written in our sight,” marvelled one of the visiting Poles, Dawid Halfar.
Benedict had promised to remain “hidden from the world” after resigning last year, but Francis has coaxed him out of retirement and urged him to take part in the public life of the church.
During the Mass, Benedict sat off to the side of the altar with other cardinals, though he was clearly in a place of honour. He received the Italian President and a steady stream of cardinals, as well as Francis himself who embraced Benedict at the beginning and end of the service.
Benedict had arrived in the square on his own to cheers and applause, wearing the same white vestments and white bishops’ mitre as other cardinals. The only difference was he had a white skullcap on rather than red.
In a dress rehearsal of sorts, Benedict attended the February ceremony in which Francis installed 19 new cardinals. But celebrating Mass together with Francis was something else entirely, a first for the institution and a reflection of Francis’s desire to show the continuity in the papacy, despite different personalities, priorities and politics.