Rome Girds for the Canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II

Upwards of 1 million pilgrims are expected to attend canonization ceremonies.

The tapestry depicting Blessed Pope John XXIII hangs on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica on April 25.
The tapestry depicting Blessed Pope John XXIII hangs on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica on April 25. (photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

VATICAN CITY — Today is a public holiday in Italy: Shops are closed, parking spaces are plentiful, and Rome is unusually quiet.

It’s the calm before the storm of festivities for the historic canonizations of John XXIII and John Paul II on Sunday.

Over the past few weeks, the city has been hard at work repairing roads, sprucing up major thoroughfares and sealing off areas around the Vatican. A steady flow of pilgrims has been arriving all week, with the largest number coming from Poland. Five trainloads, 1,700 buses and 58 chartered planes of pilgrims have been arriving from John Paul II’s native land, as well as many others travelling from Bergamo, Italy, home to John XXIII.

No one knows how many pilgrims will be attending. The Vicariate of Rome and the city authorities predict between 500,000 and 1 million, but chances are that number will be eclipsed.

Maurizio Pucci, chief coordinator of special projects for the mayor of Rome, told reporters Wednesday that a problem in estimating accurate numbers is that the amount of reservations doesn't match the figure given by their countries of origin. “Unlike other times, there are initiatives that go beyond dioceses, promoted by parishes across Europe, and they will be arriving without making reservations,” he said.

But Msgr. Librerio Andreatta, vice president of L’Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, the vicariate’s pilgrimage office, sought to allay fears that the city might not be able to cope. Msgr. Andreatta, who for the past 40 years has helped oversee the city’s organization of pilgrims arriving for conclaves, papal funerals and jubilee celebrations, said Rome is used to these extraordinary events.

“Before every event, everyone’s concerned,” he told the Register. “It seems chaotic because there’s so much to do, [but] the city is well prepared, and everything will go okay.” Pucci, who said that every hotel in the city is sold out tomorrow and Sunday, said “it’s an enormous effort, but things are going in the right direction. We’re working 24 hours a day.”


Resources Mobilized

The event is being heavily sponsored by Italian energy giant ENI, as well as AGI, one of the country’s news agencies, and an assorted number of Italian companies, including banks and the country’s rail network. Their contribution will amount to 500,000 euros for the event, while the city of Rome will also be contributing to the total cost for canonization, expected to be between 5 and 8 million euros. “Between revenue and expenditure, we should be able to break even,” Msgr. Andreatta assured reporters.

A huge amount of human resources will be on hand, including 2,500 civil protection volunteers, 4,400 police and security personnel from the city of Rome and the Italian state, as well as several hundred medical staff.

At the event itself, 5,000 priests will be in attendance, many of whom will be ministering holy Communion in St. Peter’s Square and all the way down the Via della Conciliazione. The Mass will be concelebrated by 1,000 bishops and more than 150 cardinals.

“Rome will witness an event that’s never happened in the city’s history: two living popes and two pope-saints,” Msgr. Andreatta said, hinting that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI will also be attending. Although he has been invited, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said no one will know for sure until Sunday morning if Benedict will appear.

Asked if, in view of the logistical challenges of the double canonization, whether it might have been better to have a separate canonization for each pope, Msgr. Andreatta said that was a possibility, but he prefers it this way.

“These popes span all age groups in today’s Church,” he told the Register. “Those who were young during the pontificate of John XXIII are now old, and young people up to middle age remember John Paul II,” he said.


‘Courageous and Wise Decision’

George Weigel, John Paul II’s official biographer, told reporters Friday that Pope Francis’ decision to celebrate the joint canonization was both a “courageous and wise decision.”

“These two men, who seem on the surface to be such different personalities, are in fact the two bookends of the Second Vatican Council,” he said. “John XXIIII was inspired to summon the Council and had the courage to see the Second Vatican Council through its dramatic first period.”

John Paul II, he added, was the “influential father” of the Council, who “had wisdom and courage to give it its authoritative interpretation.” By doing so, “he recovered John XXIII’s intention” that the Council was to be the “new Pentecost” and point the Church towards the New Evangelization “that will define Catholicism in the 21st century and the third millennium.”

Reflecting on the Petrine ministry of soon-to-be St. John Paul II, Weigel said the late Holy Father not only lived the drama of the 20th century in a “unique and singular way,” but he also “understood it” and “bent the curve” of the history of freedom, properly understood and lived “nobly and in solidarity.”

He was “the great teacher of our time,” Weigel said, helping others to understand “three areas of life where there’s most confusion in the world: the nature of love, the nature of work and the nature of suffering and death.”

“In all of this, in his challenge, as well as in his profound manifestation of compassion, John Paul II pointed the world to a better path through the turbulence of history,” he said. “His own life and witness were a living refutation of the nihilism that threatens the human future.”

“My hope,” Weigel concluded, “is that, by remembering his life and witness, we may be inspired to resist the tyranny of low expectations, both personal and political.”            

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.