Pope Francis has proclaimed two of his predecessors as saints of the Roman Catholic Church, in an event that drew hundreds of thousands of people from around the world in celebratory ambiances to Saint Peter’s Square.
Francis, who read the formal proclamation conferring sainthood on John Paul II and John XXIII, who helped shape 20th century history, was joined in Sunday’s canonisation mass by former Pope Benedict, who resigned last year. It is the first time that two living popes have said mass together.
”We declare and define blessed John the twenty third and Pope John Paul the second, and we enrol them among the saints, decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole church,” Pope Francis said to the large audience whose joint “amen” billowed in the square, in response.
Many of the faithful waved red-and-white flags from John Paul II’s homeland of Poland and thousands spent the night camped out in and around the Vatican, in a Catholic festival atmosphere of singing, dancing and praying.
Thousands also followed the ceremony on giant screens in some of the most picturesque spots of Rome, witnessing an event seen by Vatican experts as a way of uniting conservative and reformist wings of Catholicism.
Religious chants rang out among thousands of people who spent the night in sleeping bags and picnic chairs in order to be first in line for Sunday’s ceremony, honouring two of modern Catholicism’s most influential figures.
It is the first time that two Catholic Church leaders are being sainted on the same day and many commentators defined the event as “four-pope day”.
“We are followers of all four popes who have all been close to the people. This is an historic day but one that you really feel inside,” Luisa Tomolo, a member of an Italian religious movement, told the AFP news agency.
The Vatican said 98 foreign delegations to the event include former Polish president Lech Walesa, whose Solidarity movement backed by John Paul II helped topple communism in Eastern Europe.
The kings of Belgium and Spain were also expected, as well as Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe – despite a ban from entering the European Union, which does not apply in the sovereign Vatican state.
The charismatic, globe-trotting John Paul II became an icon to conservative Catholics, while the affable Italian John XXIII gained a reformist reputation by calling the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, which overhauled archaic Catholic rituals and beliefs.
Andrea Gagliarducci, Vatican analyst at the Catholic News Agency in Rome, told Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull in the Vatican City that the dual canonisation was a “wise decision” by Pope Francis.
Gagliarducci said the pope is not “such a revolutionary” and that “he wanted to use these two popes as an example of people of god, for believers in the Catholic church, because both of these popes made what should be done – they went to peripheries and in the same time they kept the orthodoxy of the church”.
John XXIII had only been credited with one of the two supposed miracles required for saints, but the 77-year-old Francis approved his canonisation anyway, saying that the pope who died in 1963 was so widely adored that he did not need a second miracle.
The Italian pope was seen as a peacemaker who saved thousands of Jews when he was a Vatican envoy in Turkey during World War II and he helped put an end to age-old Catholic prejudices against Jews when he became pontiff as well as helping to ease the Cuban Missile Crisis.
John Paul II also inspired widespread admiration for reaching out to other religions and for his firm condemnation of Soviet Communism and the mafia and his ability to fire up young people and lay movements.
But he was also accused of failing to address child sex crimes by priests which began to come to light in Ireland and the United States at the end of his pontificate.
Italy’s civil protection agency has 3,500 volunteers on hand, including 25 Polish cultural guides and 20 psychiatrists trained in dealing with panic attacks.