VATICAN CITY (AP) — 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 have a reigning pope and a retired pope celebrated Mass together in public, much less at an event honoring two of their most famous predecessors.
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 honoring 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 cooperated 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.”
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 canonization is now the fastest in modern times.
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 canonizing 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 enroll 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.
“This is such a historic moment,” marveled the Rev. Victor Perez, who brought a group from the John Paul High School in Houston, Texas and waited for nearly 12 hours to get near St. Peter’s. “John Paul was so impactful on the church. He completed the work of Vatican II. Today honors the last 50 years of what God has done in the church.”
In John Paul’s native Poland, bells tolled as soon as Francis pronounced the two men saints.
“He changed Poland and he changed us with his teaching and with his visits here,” an emotional Maria Jurek said as she watched the proceedings on giant TV screens at a sanctuary dedicated to John Paul in Krakow.
Yet the atmosphere in St. Peter’s seemed somber and subdued — perhaps due to the chilly gray 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.
During the Mass, Benedict sat off to the side of the altar with other cardinals, though he was clearly in a place of honor. He received the Italian president and a steady stream of cardinals, as well as Francis himself at the beginning and end of the service. Benedict had arrived in the square on his own to cheers and applause, wearing white vestments and white bishops’ miter.
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’ desire to show the continuity in the papacy, despite different personalities, priorities and politics.
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 defense of core church teaching heartened conservatives after the turbulent 1960s.
“John Paul was our pope,” said Therese Andjoua, a 49-year-old nurse who traveled 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.
JOHN XXIII AND JOHN PAUL II
John Paul’s record sprint to sainthood started during his 2005 funeral Mass, when chants of “Santo Subito” or “Sainthood Now” erupted from the crowd. Bowing to the calls, Pope Benedict XVI waived the typical five-year waiting period before a saintly investigation can begin and allowed the process to start just weeks after his death.
The rest of the process followed the rules: John Paul was beatified in 2011 after the Vatican certified that a French nun suffering from Parkinson’s disease was miraculously healed after she prayed to him. A Costa Rican woman whose inoperable brain aneurism purportedly disappeared after she prayed to John Paul was the second miracle needed for canonization.
“I was scared. I just wanted to die at home,” Floribeth Mora told reporters Thursday of her state of mind after receiving her aneurism diagnosis. She said she saw a photo of John Paul in a magazine on the day he was beatified. “And from that moment I started a new life.”
John XXIII was beatified in 2000 after the Vatican certified that the healing of an Italian nun suffering from a gastric hemorrhage was miraculous.
Pope Francis, very much a spiritual son of John, waived the Vatican rule requiring a second miracle so that John could be canonized alongside John Paul.
While popes past have tended to follow the saint-making process precisely except for occasional exceptions, Francis has waived the rules now on several occasions. On Thursday, for example, he presided over a Mass of thanksgiving for a Brazilian saint he declared without the necessary miracle.
John Paul declared more saints — 482 — than all of his predecessors combined. Some of his big-name saints: Edith Stein, a Jewish-born Carmelite nun who was killed at Auschwitz and Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan friar who sacrificed his life at the death camp so that a man with a family could live.
He also beatified a record-number: 1,338. Among them was none other than John XXIII in 2000 and Mother Teresa in 2003.
Benedict continued the process albeit at a slower clip — 45 saints under his watch — and only presided over canonizations, not beatifications. He made one exception for Cardinal John Henry Newman. Benedict beatified the 19th century Anglican convert to Catholicism during a 2010 trip to Britain.
Francis technically overtook John Paul’s record within two months as pope: In May 2013, he canonized more than 800 15th century martyrs, the so-called “Martyrs of Otranto,” who were beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam.
TOO MANY SAINTS?
The almost assembly-line approval of saints that started during John Paul’s papacy raised questions that have been reignited with his own record-fast canonization. In his book “Making Saints,” Newsweek magazine’s longtime religion editor Kenneth Woodward argued that the important checks and balances in the saint-making process had been eliminated with the abolition of the “devil’s advocate” — whose job was to challenge the postulator and find the holes in his case.
“Everyone involved in a canonization process now has a stake in its positive outcome,” Woodward complained. He said that could result in the process being manipulated and an unworthy candidate canonized. “Without the devil’s advocate, who can prevent such an outcome? And without some means of making the process public, who would know?”
Proponents of the current process insist that the checks and balances are in place with the “relator” or judge who reviews the case.
While few question that John Paul was saintly in many ways, his record-fast canonization has ruffled feathers even inside the Vatican, particularly given the stain on his legacy of having reigned while the sexual abuse scandal festered.
SHOULD POPES BE SAINTS?
Popes push the sainthood cases they like, ignore the ones they don’t and delay those that are politically inopportune. Look at Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran priest gunned down as he celebrated Mass, a martyr for sure — but his case languished under two papacies that were hostile to liberation theology. Or World War II-era Pope Pius XII, whose case was launched in 1965 but delayed because of accusations by Jews that he didn’t speak out enough against the Holocaust.
Given the politicized nature of the process, some have argued that popes really shouldn’t even be made saints since they can only be models for other popes.
“Making a pope a saint is a way of strengthening his legacy, making it more difficult for future popes to change policies that he put in place,” Vatican analyst the Rev. Thomas Reese wrote recently in the National Catholic Reporter.
But Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the postulator or chief cheerleader for John Paul’s case, said it would be “absurd” to exempt popes from possible sainthood since their main job is to spread the faith and encourage Catholics to be saintly themselves.
Before he was pope, John Paul was a student, laborer in a stone quarry, actor, poet, priest, bishop and cardinal.
“John Paul is surely a reference point for his successors, but not just that,” Oder told reporters this week. “You can find the growth of his holiness in all the steps of his life.”