VATICAN CITY — Rain was threatening to spoil today’s historic canonization of two popes in St. Peter’s Square, but at the very moment that Pope Francis proclaimed Popes John XXIII and John Paul II saints at the Vatican, the sky began to brighten.
Speaking in Latin at the canonization Mass in St. Peter’s Square for the two popes, Francis confirmed they were in heaven with the words: “We declare and define Blesseds John XXIII and John Paul II to be saints, and we enroll them among the saints, decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole Church.”
St. Peter’s Square, filled with what the Vatican estimated were 800,000 pilgrims from all over the world — with especially large contingents from Poland (John Paul II’s birthplace) and the north of Italy (the home of John XXIII) — erupted with cheers and applause.
The two-hour Mass on Divine Mercy Sunday — a feast instituted by St. John Paul II — got under way at 10am, shortly after Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI arrived to take his seat to a warm welcome from the crowd.
Another prominent participant was Sister Marie-Simon Pierre, the French sister whose miraculous recovery from Parkinson’s in 2005 paved the way for the beatification of John Paul II, who read one of the intercessory prayers.
Thick clouds cleared at the moment of the proclamation and then again at the moment of consecration during the Mass.
Pope Francis’ Homily
In his homily, Pope Francis reflected on the Gospel reading of the day — the doubting of the apostle Thomas, who said he would only believe if he could touch the wounds of Jesus. “The wounds of Jesus are a scandal, a stumbling block for faith, yet they are also the test of faith,” the Pope said. “They are essential for believing in God. Not for believing that God exists, but for believing that God is love, mercy and faithfulness.”
Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II, he added, “were not afraid to look upon the wounds of Jesus, to touch his torn hands and his pierced side.”
“They were not ashamed of the flesh of Christ; they were not scandalized by him, by his cross; they did not despise the flesh of their brother, because they saw Jesus in every person who suffers and struggles,” the Pope said. “These were two men of courage, filled with the parrhesia [audacity] of the Holy Spirit, and they bore witness before the Church and the world to God’s goodness and mercy.”
He noted that the two popes had lived through the “tragic events” of the 20th century, “but they were not overwhelmed by them,” as, for them, God, faith and the Lord’s mercy were “more powerful.” They showed the hope and joy of Easter, “forged in the crucible of self-denial, self emptying, utter identification with sinners.”
Both popes “cooperated with the Holy Spirit” in renewing and updating the Church, he said. John XXIII, he stressed, showed an “exquisite openness” to the Holy Spirit and let himself be led by it.
For his part, John Paul II was the “pope of the family,” Francis stressed, noting that the late Polish pope once said he wanted to be remembered as such. Pope Francis pointed to the relevance of this fact, especially as the Catholic Church is “journeying with families” in preparation for the October Synod on Marriage and the Family. “It is surely a journey which, from his place in heaven, he guides and sustains,” Francis said.
The Pope closed his homily by calling on these two new saints to intercede for the Church to ensure the synod is a “pastoral service to the family.”
“May both of them teach us not to be scandalized by the wounds of Christ and to enter ever more deeply into the mystery of Divine Mercy, which always hopes and always forgives, because it always loves,” he said.
Witnesses to History
Raymond Flynn, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See under President Clinton, said he had been to many other such occasions, but this was “the most dramatic and most moving event” he and his wife had ever attended. “It’s almost like history coming before you, when I think about all the things that I’ve lived through,” he said. “It’s like a movie, but it’s real.”
He felt it signified the end of an “extraordinary chapter” in world history, and he added that “when you put it all together, we’re the lucky ones, able to grow up and live in this kind of history, learning about two remarkable men, to witness this and to do so in the presence of two popes and two saints.”
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a Catholic convert, said the canonization was “extraordinary,” noting it was a day involving four popes, including Benedict XVI. Gingrich, who has made a documentary on John Paul II called Nine Days That Changed the World, said there was “no question” that the “core message” of both popes is that “every human being has a basic dignity, and that dignity has to be respected, including the right to religious liberty.”
This message, he said, “is at the center of the Church’s modern message to the world.”
He also said the “deliberate acceleration” of John Paul being made a saint — a process some criticized — “is really an effort to draw the next generation, to be aware of what courage can do and particularly what heroic courage can do when dedicated to bringing Christ to the world.”
Michael Reagan, son of Ronald Reagan — who is widely credited with helping to bring down Soviet communism, along with John Paul II and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — also noted the weather changing at the moment of Francis’ proclamation. “I told everyone not to worry about the forecast of rain,” he said. “When my dad was sworn in, it looked like rain, until he got up to speak, and then the sun broke out.”
“God is good,” he said.
Voices From the Square
Pilgrims began camping out for the canonization long before midnight Saturday, and by morning, St. Peter’s Square and the main boulevard leading up to St. Peter’s Basilica were filled with people.
Max, who had traveled from Paris, said he felt he knew John Paul II and so wanted to participate. “It is the first time that someone I know has been a saint,” he said. “For a Catholic, it is very important. I want to share this experience with everyone back home.”
Alix, also from Paris, said she came to Rome for the canonization because John Paul II was a “great figure” from her childhood. “I grew up with his image in my head,” she said. “He faced communism and many historical events. For young people, he encouraged us, motivated us. He told us we did not have to be ashamed of our faith at school or work. He is a great example of holiness.”
Father Miguel De La Porta, a Spaniard living in Rome, said the two popes are “models of sanctity, very beautiful.” John XXIII had a “personal approach to the Lord”; John Paul II had “evangelization — bringing others to him.”
“The saints do not want anything for themselves,” he said. “They just want to bring people to him. I think they will bring many people to the Lord.”
Many U.S. bishops also were among the vast assembly of Catholics who made the pilgrimage to Rome for the historic canonizations, including Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore.
“I think, really, that the most fundamental thing that we are celebrating is the life and holiness of these two pontiffs and the importance of holiness for the Church’s mission of evangelization,” Archbishop Lori told the Register before the canonizations took place.
Added the archbishop, “What I would hope and pray is that these dual canonizations will be a great impetus, a great grace, for carrying forward the Church’s mission of evangelization, not only in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, but beyond.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.