Thousands gather for canonisation of two popes

Pope Francis proclaimed his predecessors John XXIII and John Paul II saints in front of more than 500,000 pilgrims, hailing both as courageous men who withstood the tragedies of the 20th century.

Thousands gather for canonisation of two popes

Cheers and applause rang out across St Peter’s Square after the historic double papal canonisation as many in the crowd fixed their gaze on huge tapestries of the two popes on the facade of the basilica behind Francis.

“We declare and define Blessed John XXIII and John Paul II to be saints and we enrol them among the saints, decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole Church,” Francis said in his formal proclamation in Latin.

Relics of each man — a container of blood from John Paul II and skin from John XXIII — were placed near the altar.

The fact that the two being canonised are widely seen as representing contrasting faces of the Church has added to the significance of an event that Francis hopes will draw the world’s 1.2bn Catholics closer together after a string of sex abuse and financial scandals.

The crowd stretched back along Via della Conciliazione, the broad, half-kilometre boulevard that starts at the Tiber River.

The Mass was also attended by former Pope Benedict, who last year became the first pontiff in six centuries to step down.

His attendance gave the ceremony a somewhat surreal atmosphere created by the presence of reigning pope, a retired pope, and two dead popes buried in the basilica. Francis went over to greet Benedict twice during the service.

“These were two men of courage and they bore witness before the Church and the world to God’s goodness and mercy,” said Francis in his address.

“They lived through the tragic events of that [20th] century, but they were not overwhelmed by them.

“For them, God was more powerful; faith was more powerful,” he added.

John XXIII, who reigned from 1958 to 1963 and called the modernising Second Vatican Council, lived through both world wars.

John Paul II, the Pole who reigned for nearly 27 years, witnessed the devastation of his homeland in the Second World War and is credited by many with helping end the Cold War and bring down communism.

While both men were widely revered, there has also been criticism that John Paul II, who died nine years ago, has been canonised too quickly. Groups representing victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests also say he did not do enough to root out a scandal that emerged towards the end of his pontificate and which has hung over the church ever since.

The controversy did nothing to put off the rivers of Catholic faithful.

“I think that they were two great people, each of them had their own particular character, so they deserve what is happening,” said Leonardo Ruino, who came from Argentina.

The Vatican said more than 500,000 people filled the basilica area while another 300,000 watched the event on large screens throughout Rome. The overwhelming majority in the crowd were Poles who had travelled from their home country and immigrant communities as far afield as Chicago as well as Sydney to watch their most famous native son become a saint.

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 Fr Tom Rosica, head of Canada’s Salt and Light Catholic television network.

Families and other pilgrims had waited for over 12 hours along the main street leading to the Vatican before police opened up the square at 5.30 am.

Some people said they had managed to sleep on their feet because the crowd was so thick.

About 850 cardinals and bishops celebrated the Mass with the pope and 700 priests were on hand to distribute communion to the huge crowd.

About 10,000 police and security personnel and special paramedic teams were deployed and large areas of Rome were closed to traffic.

John, an Italian often known as the “Good Pope” because of his friendly, open personality, died before the Second Vatican Council ended its work in 1965 but his initiative set off one of the greatest upheavals in Church teaching in modern times.

The Council ended the use of Latin at Mass, brought in the use of modern music and opened the way for challenges to Vatican authority, which alienated some traditionalists.

John Paul continued many of the reforms but tightened central control, condemned theological renegades and preached a stricter line on social issues such as sexual freedom.

A charismatic, dominant pope, he was criticised by some as a rigid conservative but the adoration he inspired was shown by the huge crowds whose chants of “santo subito!” (make him a saint at once!) at his funeral 2005 were answered with the fastest declaration of sainthood in modern history.

Steps to sainthood

The process that can lead to sainthood, known as a “cause”, cannot usually start until five years after a person’s death.

In some cases, this five-year waiting period can be waived by a pope if there is overwhelming evidence that the person under consideration lived a holy life. Pope John Paul waived the five-year period for Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who died in 1997, and Pope Benedict waived it for the sainthood cause of Pope John Paul, who died in 2005.

In the early years of the Church, a saint could be declared such by acclamation by the people or by cardinals or by papal decree.

Today, the Vatican department that studies sainthood causes is known as the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Its origins date back to 1588 but the department has been modified several times over the years.

After the Congregation accepts the name of a person to be considered for sainthood, that person is given the title “Servant of God”.

If initial investigations show that the candidate for sainthood lived what is known as a life of “heroic virtues” that person is given the title “Venerable”.

Historical and theological commissions in the Congregation study the person’s life, read his or her writings and interview people who knew the person. At this point, in order for the procedure to continue, a miracle is needed.

Miracles are not performed by prospective saints but by God. The Church believes that, because a prospective saint is in heaven, he or she can intercede with God to perform the miracle on someone on earth who has prayed to the prospective saint.

A miracle is usually a medically inexplicable healing. A medical commission appointed by the Vatican determines if there was any medical explanation for the healing or not.

Miracles are not necessary if a person was a martyr, someone killed in what the Church calls “hatred of the faith”.

If a miracle is determined for those who were not martyrs, the person can be “beatified” and is given the title “Blessed”.

John XXIII was beatified in 2000 and John Paul was beatified in 2011.

A second, distinct miracle must take place after the beatification in order to proceed to sainthood.

John Paul is credited with two miracles — the inexplicable healing of a French nun who was suffering from Parkinson’s disease and the healing of a Costa Rican woman who was suffering from a brain aneurysm. Both had prayed to him after he died.

John XXIII, on the other hand, is credited with only one miracle — the healing of an Italian nun who was stricken by a stomach disease doctors had determined would be fatal.

In the case of Pope John XXIII, Pope Francis waived the requirement of a second miracle, ruling that after more than half a century since his death, there was no doubt that John was a holy man.

More in this section