April 27 (Bloomberg) -- Former Popes John Paul II and John XXIII were declared saints in an unprecedented double-canonization ceremony that drew about 800,000 pilgrims from around the world.
Pope Francis led the Mass at St. Peter’s Square, dotted with red and white flags in honor of John Paul II’s Polish homeland. Relics from the two saints, including a vial of blood from John Paul and a piece of skin from John XXIII, were brought to the altar during the rite. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who last year became the first pope to resign in 600 years, received applause as he took his seat.
The two saints “co-operated with the Holy Spirit in renewing and updating the Church,” Pope Francis said. “There dwelt a living hope and an indescribable joy” in both.
The joint canonization gives Francis the chance to reconcile voices within the Roman Catholic Church as he unites the different legacies of John Paul II and John XXIII. Francis has made headlines during his tenure with remarks showing more tolerance toward homosexuality and a promise to punish child-abusing priests.
Pope Francis today described John Paul II as a “pope of the family,” and said John XXIII’s great achievement was convening the Second Vatican Council.
John Paul II, the church’s most-traveled pontiff, became the fastest to be canonized since at least 1588, when Pope Sixtus V founded the Sacred Congregation for Rites to oversee the canonization process. During the pope’s funeral in 2005, mourners in Rome chanted “Santo Subito,” or “Sainthood Now.”
The Vatican heeded the call, waiving the traditional five-year waiting period before starting the beatification process.
Marguerite Regnault, a 29-year-old psychologist from Paris, France, who traveled to Rome with a group of friends, said she was struck by John Paul’s enthusiasm and how he transmitted it to others.
“I was here in the year 2000 as a teen,” she said. “I was here watching the giant screen at the Circus Maximus for the funeral; I returned again for the beatification, sleeping in the square with other pilgrims, so in a way this is a circle that comes to a close and I’m here.”
Born Karol Jozef Wojtyla in Wadowice, Poland, John Paul II served as pope from 1978 to 2005. He used his position as the head of the world’s 1 billion Catholics to denounce totalitarianism and promote freedom and human rights. Poles credit him with helping hasten the fall of Communist regimes in the former Soviet bloc.
Dubbed “God’s Athlete” because of his love of sports such as skiing and mountain climbing, he traveled to more than 130 countries and visited every continent except Antarctica.
His final years were marred by revelations about the extent of sexual abuse by priests. He survived an assassination attempt by Mehmet Ali Agca in 1981 and was beatified six years after his death by Benedict XVI, leaving him one step from sainthood.
Less popular abroad than John Paul, John XXIII, born Angelo Roncalli near the northern Italian city of Bergamo in 1881, is known mainly for convening in 1962 the Second Vatican Council, a gathering of bishops that played a key role in modernizing Catholicism by making changes, such as allowing the use of vernacular in Masses and recognizing freedom of conscience and democracy.
Known as “Papa Buono,” or the “Good Pope,” for his down-to-earth personality, Roncalli worked as a papal diplomat in eastern Europe, Turkey, Greece and France before serving as pope from 1958 until his death from cancer in 1963.
Progressive Catholics love John XXIII and many conservatives love John Paul II, according to Thomas Reese, senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter.
Italians recall Pope John XXIII’s impromptu 1962 “Speech to the Moon,” in which he greeted the Romans who were celebrating the opening of the Vatican Council, and asked them to pass on the Pope’s caress to their children.
He was beatified in 2000 by John Paul II, and Francis decided last year to fast-track his canonization, even without a formally recognized second miracle usually required to proclaim someone a saint.
Just One Miracle
John Paul II is credited with curing a French nun with Parkinson’s disease, from which he also suffered, as well as a Costa Rican woman with an aneurysm in 2011. For John XXIII, the Vatican recognized the 1966 healing of an Italian nun dying from a stomach hemorrhage as a miracle.
Many pilgrims camped out overnight along side-streets leading to St. Peter’s square, while others took part in all-night prayer vigils organized at a dozen of Rome’s churches. Many couldn’t fit into the square or the neighboring Via della Conciliazione and had to watch the ceremony on giant screens. More than 20 heads of State and 120 delegations attended.
In the past 700 years, only two other popes have become saints, Pius V in 1712 and Pius X in 1954. With today’s canonizations the number of sainted pontiffs rises to 80, out of 264 deceased popes.
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