VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis proclaimed sainthood Sunday for a pair of former pontiffs, John Paul II and John XXIII, thrilling multitudes who gathered in St. Peter’s Square and elsewhere to witness the double canonization.
It marked the first time in the history of the Roman Catholic Church that two ex-popes were canonized in the same event.
Although the focus was on the late pontiffs, the elaborate ceremony and the global attention it generated seemed likely to provide another boost for the soaring reputation of Francis. The Argentine pope, who was elected last year, has become extremely popular with the faithful.
“They were priests, bishops and popes of the 20th century,” Francis said in his homily of the two popes being canonized, giants of the church’s turbulent, post-World War II and Cold War eras. “They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them.”
Some 500,000 pilgrims and visitors crammed into the square and nearby streets for the solemn ceremony, including large numbers from Poland, the homeland of John Paul II. Many waved Polish flags. The canonization was followed by a Mass celebrated on the steps of St. Peter’s by Pope Francis.
Huge banners with portraits of the two former popes were displayed on the facade of the basilica. St. Peter’s Square was adorned with more than 30,000 roses from Ecuador.
The crowd was so great that many were turned away from the square early Sunday, when visitors were finally allowed to filter slowly into Via della Conciliazione, the street that leads to the basilica. Those inside spent the early-morning hours braving the chill and occasional rain showers. Authorities tightly controlled the crowd’s advance, seeking to avoid a dangerous crush.
“It took us three hours to get 500 yards down the street to the start of the square, but we prayed, sang and shared food – it was unbelievable,” said Mark Mulvaney, 57, from Yorktown, Va. “An event like this that involves four popes is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a Catholic.”
Adding to the uniqueness of the day was the presence of Benedict XVI, Francis’ 87-year-old predecessor, who stepped down last year in a rare example of a pope retiring. Francis greeted and embraced Benedict.
During the Mass, hundreds of priests and deacons fanned into the crowd to serve Communion, causing the tightly packed throngs to surge toward them.
“It was spiritual, although people were frantic,” said Jackie Fernandez, from Miami, who said she was toppled in the Communion scrum.
But Fernandez said it was all worth it, not just to witness the canonization but also to see Pope Francis, a comment seconded by many other ecstatic pilgrims.
“John Paul was one of the greatest popes, but Francis is following in his footsteps and getting the young involved,” said Fernandez, who came with her mother, Rosario, 75. “My daughter who is in college is following him on Twitter.”
The joint canonization was championed by Francis, who, in the view of some observers, saw a singular opportunity to build bridges between the church’s progressive and conservative wings. Francis sought to frame both of his predecessors in the context of the Second Vatican Council, the 1960s reform-minded event that looms large in recent church history.
John XXIII, who convened the so-called Vatican II process in 1962 but died before its conclusion, has long been admired by church liberals. John Paul II, a Pole known for his staunch anti-communism, has been an icon for many conservatives. But aspects of Vatican II were put into action by John Paul II, who served almost 27 years until his death in 2005, one of the longest tenures of any pontiff.
Francis “wanted to make this a unifying event,” said John Thavis, a Vatican analyst and author. “Pairing the popes was original. And Francis astutely found a way to use Vatican II as a way to unify them.”
An estimated 800,000 people descended on Rome for the dual canonization, the Vatican said. That included the half a million around the Vatican and 300,000 watching on giant TV screens set up throughout Rome.
Some attended all-night prayer vigils and confession at 11 churches throughout the Italian capital, where prayers were said in seven languages including Polish and Arabic.
Also in attendance, the Vatican said, were some 150 cardinals, 700 bishops, 24 heads of state and 93 official delegations.
Afterward, as Francis shook hands with official delegates and world leaders, some snapped selfies with the pontiff on their mobile phones, including Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski.
The pope later took a spin on the popemobile through St. Peter’s Square. He caught items of clothing that were lobbed at him from the crowd. At one point he smiled at someone and gestured with his hand that he would phone later.
As the throngs began to leave the square, the scene resembled the aftermath of a rock festival, with bottles, bedrolls and newspapers crunched underfoot.