Pope Francis has declared two of his predecessors, John Paul II and John XXIII, saints of the Roman Catholic church in an unprecedented double-canonisation mass in St Peter’s Square.
The two towering figures of the 20th-century church were canonised to great applause from hundreds of thousands of pilgrims gathered in theVatican piazza.
Carrying flags, backpacks and rolled foam mattresses, pilgrims from all over the world had flocked into Vatican City overnight and were let into St Peter’s Square from 5.30am when the piazza was opened by authorities.
Most of those let in first had spent all night outside and had either slept on the street or not slept at all. But a carnival atmosphere reigned as the crowds of Catholics prepared to witness the canonisation of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII.
“Today is a great celebration,” said Giuseppe Cannella from Milan, standing on the broad avenue leading to St Peter’s basilica. Ahead of him were Michela Zugno, 23, and Dario Zappa, 24, also from Milan, who had been waiting on Via della Conciliazione since midnight.
“They were both two greats of the church who revolutionised it completely, and it’s important to show that, despite all the difficulties, we young people are here,” said Zugno.
Pope Francis was, unusually, joined by emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, his predecessor who resigned last year. The former German pontiff’s presence had been uncertain due to ill health.
The other unprecedented aspect of the event was the canonisation of both John Paul II and John XXIII at the same time. Beatified in 2011, the Polish pope had been on a record-quick path to sainthood since his death in 2005, when pilgrims at his funeral shouted ‘Santo Subito!’ (‘Saint Immediately!’).
John XXIII, however, the Italian pontiff from 1958 to 1963 who called the revolutionary Second Vatican Council, had not been expected to be recognised as a saint imminently as he lacked the second miracle usually required.
Never one to be bound by convention, however, Francis announced the dual-canonisation last year, not long after his election as the Catholic church’s first Latin American pope.
Canonising a hero of liberal Catholics alongside the darling of many conservatives was seen by Vatican observers as an attempt to bring together different wings of the church.
Among the crowds in St Peter’s Square on Sunday morning was a large Polish contingent, which had travelled into Rome on 1,700 coaches as well as charter flights and trains. One of them, Lessek Gretka, 51, was present for Karol Wojtyla’s visit to Poland in 1979 – the first time that a pope visited a communist country.
“He changed the political situation not just in Poland but in the whole world. We are that generation for whom that means a lot,” he said.
Asked about criticism from the victims of clerical sex abuse who argue Wojtyla did not act quickly enough to curb the actions of paedophile priests, Gretka said he did not think this should be a stumbling block to sainthood.