Pope Francis proclaimed sainthood Sunday for a pair of former pontiffs, John Paul II and John XXIII, thrilling multitudes who gathered in St. Peter’s Square and nearby to witness the unprecedented double canonization.
It marked the first time in the church’s more than 2,000-year history that two former popes had been canonized on the same day.
And, though the focus was on the two late pontiffs, the extravagant ceremony and Mass will probably provide another boost for the soaring popularity of Francis, the Argentine pope who has only held office for slightly more than a year.
"These were two men of courage," Francis said in his homily of the two late popes.
Some 500,000 pilgrims and visitors crammed into the square and nearby streets for the solemn ceremony, including large numbers from Poland, the homeland of John Paul II. The canonization was followed by a Mass celebrated on the steps of St. Peter’s by Pope Francis.
The crowd was so great that many were turned away from the square early Sunday, when visitors were finally allowed to filter slowly into the Via della Conciliazione, the street that leads to the basilica. Those who managed to get inside St. Peter’s Square spent the early morning hours braving the chill and occasional rain showers. Authorities tightly controlled the crowd’s advance for safety reasons.
“It took us three hours to get 500 yards down the street to the start of the square, but we prayed, sang and shared food -- it was unbelievable,” said Mark Mulvaney, 57, a real estate manager from Yorktown, Va. “An event like this that involves four popes is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a Catholic.”
Adding to the uniqueness of the event was the presence of Francis' predecessor, Benedict XVI, who stepped down last year in a rare example of a pope retiring. Before the ceremony, Francis greeted and embraced Benedict, who was dressed in the white robes of a cardinal.
During the Mass, priests fanned into the crowd to serve communion, causing the tightly packed crowd to surge.
“It was spiritual, although people were frantic,” said Jackie Fernandez, a financial planner from Miami who said she was toppled as people moved forward for communion.
But Fernandez said it was all worth it, not just to witness the canonization, but also to see Francis. For many visitors, the popular pope was clearly part of the attraction.
“John Paul was one of the greatest popes, but Francis is following in his footsteps and getting the young involved,” said Fernandez, who came with her mother, Rosario, 75. “My daughter, who is in college, is following him on Twitter, which is great.”
An estimated 800,000 people descended on Rome for the dual canonization, a Vatican spokesman said. That included the half a million around the Vatican and another 300,000 watching the event on giant TV screens set up throughout the city of Rome.
Some attended all-night prayer vigils and confession at 11 churches in Rome, where prayers were said in seven languages, including Arabic.
Many Polish worshipers, who came here in large numbers to honor their countryman, John Paul II, headed for Piazza Navona in the center of Rome, where the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone was offering prayers in Polish.
Also in attendance at the canonization ceremony, the Vatican said, were some 150 cardinals, 700 bishops, 24 heads of state and 93 official delegations.
Afterward, as Francis shook hands with official delegates and world leaders, some snapped selfies with the pontiff on their phones, including Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski.
Following the ceremony, Francis took a spin on the popemobile around St Peter’s Square. The pope played goalkeeper, catching items of clothing that were lobbed at him from the crowd. At one point he smiled at someone and gestured with his hand that he would phone them later.
As the throngs began to leave the square, the scene resembled the aftermath of a rock festival, with bottles, bed rolls and newspapers crunched underfoot after thousands had camped out to get a spot close to the altar.
But the canonization and Mass had featured all the pomp, circumstance and ritual that the church could muster.
Kington is a special correspondent.