An estimated 800,000 pilgrims gathered in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Sunday to witness the canonisation of two of the 20th century’s most popular popes, John XXIII and John Paul II.
The Vatican's main square was already packed with worshipers by Saturday afternoon, with groups of pilgrims from Poland to Paraguay arriving to see Pope Francis formally recognise the sainthood of two of his predecessors, John XXIII and John Paul II.
Adding to the excitement was the announcement by the Vatican Saturday that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI would attend the canonisation ceremony. The presence of the 87-year-old former pontiff saw, for the first time ever, two living popes together celebrating two deceased predecessors.
“There was some concern that he wasn’t going to make it because of his age, but he has confirmed his presence,” said FRANCE 24 correspondent Seema Gupta, reporting from Rome.
“It is really unprecedented – two of the most influential popes of the 20th century are going to be canonised in the presence of two living popes.”
A total of one million people were expected in Rome to witness the ceremony. To deal with the massive influx of visitors, the Rome authorities have deployed some 2,400 police, over 600 Red Cross volunteers, 2,000 civil protection volunteers and almost 1,000 portable toilets.
For those unable to pack into Saint Peter’s on Sunday, 18 huge television screens have been set up around Rome, while many people spent Saturday night in churches that remained open all night, praying rather than sleeping.
The fame of John XXIII, the Italian pontiff who launched the modernising Second Vatican Council in 1962, and John Paul II, the revered Pole who led the Church for almost 27 years before his death in 2005, has been a major factor in attracting the faithful.
“I feel very happy because both of them inspire us,” said Father Emmanuel Emeka, a priest from Nigeria. “I think both of them have a lot to teach us.”
It was John Paul II, whose death brought huge crowds to St Peter’s chanting “Santo subito!”, calling for him to be made a saint, that appeared most popular with the crowds, however.
Fewer seemed to remember John XXIII, sometimes known as the “Good Pope” due to his friendly, humorous character.
“Most young people have no idea who John XXIII was anymore,” says street merchant Alfredo Chiarelli, sounding slightly regretful.
However, not all have been pleased with the decision to canonise John Paul II, who presided over the Catholic Church during the height of the child sex abuse scandal.
Critics claim he was slow to grasp the seriousness of the crisis and question whether he knew more than was admitted about specific cases of sexual abuse by members of the Church.
Others in the Church have argued the popes should not be made saints at all.
“This is an example of the papacy canonising itself,” Luigi Accattoli, one of Italy’s most respected Catholic authors, said on earlier this week.
“By canonising a pope, the papacy confirms itself. It’s as if they are saying that the policies of previous popes are untouchable.”
Crowds gather on streets of Rome
From as early as 6 am, crowds were already filling the streets lining St. Peter's Basilica. All photos: Amara Makhoul/FRANCE 24
To ensure a good spot in time for the ceremony, many chose to camp out in sleeping bags on Rome's steets.
Marco, from Italy, and his family decided to watch the ceremony in person as, "We should get together with other Catholics. We all aspire to become saints."
Sister Dora, father Sylvain and Sister Marie from the Republic of Congo. "John Paul II was a friend of young people and a great saint. We're here to represent Congo-Brazzaville."
"John Paul II has made a mark on my whole life," Francesco from Milan said.
"John Paul II was like Christ on earth," said Jean-Marie from Madrid who's brought his family along for the historic event, including his son who is named after John Paul.
"I'm very moved to see this crowd," Linda from Minnesota said. "It's incredible to think that we share our faith with all these people that have come together (here)," Linda exclaimed, her voice breaking with emotion.
"For us, John Paul II was a saint from the start. Today is a great day for Poland!," said Elisabeth from Poland.
"John Paul II set an example for peace," said Michelle from Texas, accompanied by her two daughters.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-04-26