April 26 was not a typical Saturday evening in Rome. Normally, once vigil Masses conclude and Massgoers proceed home, church lights are dimmed and doors locked.
Instead, churches throughout the Eternal City remained open, hosting late-night vigils and welcoming pilgrims from all parts of the world, who were flocking to the city for the canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II the following morning.
St. John Lateran and St. Paul Outside the Walls, two of Rome’s four major basilicas, opened the evening with 6pm Masses. Afterward, pilgrims who desired to spend time in prayer before joining the burgeoning crowds by the Vatican had a plethora of options from which to choose.
Eleven churches in the city center, as well as others elsewhere in Rome, offered vigils in nine languages.
Santa Maria delle Grazie al Trionfale, for instance, a small parish near the Vatican wall, provided a vigil from 10:30pm to 5am, including communal prayer, meditations, songs, confessions and video clips from both popes’ pontificates. Recognizing that spiritual nourishment might not be enough to equip "all-nighter" pilgrims for the anticipated day ahead, food and refreshments were also provided.
A Special Connection
While St. John Lateran Basilica was one among many to host a vigil that night, it was specific in its dedication to the people of Bergamo, Italy, the hometown of John XXIII. The Lateran, other than the original seat of the papacy, is connected to this pope in yet another way: John XXIII studied and taught at the Pontifical Lateran University, making the basilica a fitting place for a vigil in his honor.
"He was actually the one who raised the school of the Lateran to university during his pontificate [in 1959]," said Sister Maria, a Canossian Daughter of Charity from Bergamo, who enjoys coming to the Lateran basilica because of its close connection to the pope — and now saint — who shares her hometown.
The current shepherd of Bergamo, Bishop Francesco Beschi, preached the homily at the Saturday vigil and emphasized the great "peace of heart" John XXIII carried with him.
Besides those from Bergamo, many others shared fond memories of John XXIII, historically remembered for calling the Second Vatican Council and "turning a new page in the Church’s history," as Pope John Paul II declared when he beatified him in 2000, bringing a "breath of newness," not as "concerns doctrine, but, rather, the way to explain it."
An American mother attending the canonizations with her son recounted, "John XXIII opened up the Church more, making it more available. Not so specifically for clergy, but for all people, all the faithful, and helped us understand how beautiful the faith is."
"When I think of John XXIII, what automatically comes to mind is this word in Italian — rinnovamento — which means ‘to open,’ meaning a renewal, a renewal to open the windows of the Church to the world," stated Sister Walburga, a Missionary of the Precious Blood from Germany.
Sister Maria recalled that, on the eve of the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, "he did not want to say any words, though he said so much. [He said], ‘Just look at the moon, how beautiful it is. When you go home, look at your children. Give a kiss to your children. Tell them it is a kiss from the Pope. I am a father to them, and they are all my children.’"
Opening his arms to embrace the world, John XXIII opened the Church to embrace all people.
John XXIII is remembered as the visionary who foresaw the need for renewal in the Church. Most pilgrims in Rome for the canonizations, however, had more vivid memories of Pope John Paul II, who "practiced the [teachings of the Council] and made it happen in real life," according to Bishop Pedro Pablo Elizondo Cardenas of the Diocese of Cancun, Mexico.
"He was a missionary and went to preach to all countries and all sectors of society, especially the family," Bishop Cardenas said.
Indeed, those attending the vigil at Santa Maria testified to the bishop’s words. From John Paul II’s homeland in Poland to Nigeria, Paraguay, Kenya and Germany, young and old alike have cherished memories of John Paul II in their respective countries that inspired their faith.
Joy, a professor from Nigeria, recalled both of John Paul II’s papal visits to the western African nation and the personal impact they had. "When he came to Nigeria, he became real to me. Like everyone, we all felt that he looked at us. He had that personal touch that is so beautiful."
"I pray that I will have that, because I am a teacher and want to impact the lives of other people," Joy added.
John Paul II also had a significant impact on Sister Tamara, a Polish religious sister, who said her vocation was inspired by "his love, his patience and his mercy."
"He was so open, very calm and peaceful inside," she said.
Pilgrims from South America also recalled John Paul II in their native countries, a presence that strengthened their faith. Cheryl, exiting Santa Maria with night gear to camp out by the Vatican, stated, "I want to be there because I saw John Paul II when he was alive, and he did so many things that touched my faith, my life, my youth. It is important now for me to be there for him."
Making 104 international papal visits, and an additional 146 within Italy, it is no wonder John Paul II is remembered and loved so universally.
writes from Rome.