'Pope of surprises' makes sainthood pure box office
Flood of faithful fills St Peter's Square as a million turn up to witness ceremony, says Lise Hand in Rome
It was still night, but the perturbed dawn chorus singing in the trees near Castel Sant'Angelo vied with the continuous clatter of footfall on the cobblestones.
The chatter and chanting of the passing crowds was muted as they travelled along by the banks of the Tiber, perhaps in deference to the hundreds and hundreds of pilgrims huddled in sleeping-bags in the shadow of the ancient fortress.
The human river flowed slowly through the dark, drawn towards the illuminated basilica of St Peter, but it was only when a grey sunrise spread across Vatican City that the immensity of the flood of faithful was revealed.
By 8am, the vast space of St Peter's Square was packed to its capacity of 250,000, their numbers siphoned carefully in through the barriers by rows of some of the 10,000 yellow-jacketed volunteers.
The rest of the million-strong crowd filled the length of the boulevard, gazing up at some of the 17 giant screens erected for the occasion along key points of the route and the city. Some sat on small fold-up chairs, others stood; they sang, snoozed, read Bibles and books, ate cold breakfasts and prayed that the drizzle wouldn't graduate to the heavy rain which had been forecasted.
The sheer scale of the event was staggering, and for once, words such as 'historic' and 'unprecedented' were not hyperbole, given that two living popes – Francis and Benedict XVI – were present at the canonisation of two of their predecessors, John XXIII and John Paul II.
Moreover, this quartet were serious box-office: Bergamo-born John is revered by many Italians – a myriad of restaurants in Rome have on their walls the Holy Trinity of Catholic icons: the Virgin Mary, Padre Pio and John XXIII; while John Paul II travelled more widely than any other pontiff during his 27-year papacy.
And, of course, there is also a new major star in town – in the short 13 months since being elected as the 266th pontiff, Pope Francis has breathed fresh life into what was widely perceived to be a church mired in controversy, scandal and infighting. And there, walking with evident fragility onto the opulent stage, was the Pope Emeritus, the first pontiff to resign in more than 600 years.
This was a compelling quartet to feature in an unprecedented double canonisation, and comparisons of the impeccably choreographed event to a giant open-air music concert were inevitable. There may have been no pyrotechnics on the stage with its backdrop of huge twin images of the two men being elevated to sainthood, but there were 150 cardinals, 1,000 bishops, 6,000 priests and 24 heads of state – including Taoiseach Enda Kenny. It was rock-concert-meets-church-celebration – an artful mix of Papalooza meets Pope and Circumstance.
As the ceremony commenced, the mood among the spectators changed from one of noisy exuberance to quiet solemnity. This was a deeply emotional experience for many. Polish woman Beata Dabrowski, from outside Warsaw, said: "I did not think I would see this day, that Papa John Paul who watches over our country would be made a saint before my eyes. I can die happy now."
The area may have been a rainbow riot of flags, but the red and white of Poland dominated.
"The atmosphere is electric – in fact, the last time I felt such love and devotion from a crowd was when me and my wife went to Phoenix Park to see the Pope," said Thomas O'Toole from Limerick.
"We still talk about that blessed day."
As the canonisation was completed, many of the faithful knelt on the hard cobbles, heads bowed, deep in prayer. Others wiped away tears as the Litany of Saints was recited for the second time – and this time the names of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II rang out around the square. The sound of the Sistine Chapel choir rose into the leaden sky as the ceremony unfolded – a blend of the simple and the arcane – relics of the two men, a vial of John Paul's blood and a piece of skin from Pope John were paraded, a reminder of how long into the past stretch some of the ceremonial practices of Catholicism.
Pope Francis – hailed as the 'Pope of Surprises' for the informality and spontaneity he has brought to his papacy – surprised again by sticking to his script during his homily.
He kept his tribute to the two new saints simple but eloquent. He told the vast, attentive congregation: "They lived through tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them, God was more powerful, faith was more powerful."
There had been some criticism that Francis had 'fast-tracked' Pope John Paul to sainthood – after all, he died only in 2005; and that he had waived the two-miracle rule in the case of Pope John as only a single miracle is attributed to him – the healing of a nun in 1966.
But Pope Francis has shown himself to be a shrewd operator, and knew such a double bill would entice the faithful. By simultaneously elevating a conservative and a reforming pontiff, everybody was satisfied.
The images of the human river engulfing Vatican City sent another powerful message to the estimated television audience of more than one billion – the tide hasn't gone out on the Catholic Church and, perhaps under his guidance, that tide has turned.