Pope Francis makes saints of John XXIII and John Paul II in an historic day in Rome
Made even more historic by the presence of retired Pope Benedict XVI.
Published 27/04/2014 | 11:06
Crowds of around a million gather in Rome to witness historic canonisation in St Peter's Square.
Applause rippled through the huge million-plus-strong crowd crammed into St Peter's Square and along the length of the broad Via della Conciliazione to the Tiber, as the large screens flashed up images of Pope Francis and Pope emeritus Benedict XVI greeting each each other and embrace.
It was one more historic moment in an historic day which involved four popes - the unprecedented sight of two living pontiffs overseeing the double canonisation of two of their predecessors, John XXIII and John Paul II.
And the special nature of this event inevitably drew a massive influx of faithful to Rome, and the streets were a sea of flags from every corner of the world - but one flag in particular was everywhere - the red and white of Poland, homeland of Pope John Paul II.
Many of them began queuing from early yesterday; one group of men, dressed in cycling gear, had just arrived in the city, having cycled almost 700 miles from Krakow. "It was our pilgrimage. He was our Papa. He gave us freedom," said David Nowak, in a reference to the role that the Polish pontiff is credited with in hastening the collapse of communism.
The clouds over Vatican City may have threatened rain, but the mood was sunny among the estimated throng of over one million - believed to be even larger than the crowd who packed into the square on the night just over 13 months ago when Jorge Bergoglio was elected the 266th leader of the Catholic Church.
And the final part of this pilgrimage was slowest; it was after dawn before some of the 10,000 stewards and 5,000 police began to carefully siphon the faithful into the square; many had camped out overnight, in order to get in to the piazza which can hold 250,000 people.
The double canonisation been generally regarded as a clever move by the pope, as both men were enormously popular, if very different in terms of their approach to the papacy; John XXIII instituted Vatican II Council which brought sweeping reforms to the Catholic Church, while John Paul II was more conservative, but travelled widely during his 26-year reign and was seen by more Christians than any other pope.
And both men had their devotees in the massive crowd - many flags bore images of one or other pope, and at one stage as the sheer numbers of people brought everyone to a standstill, a good-humoured sing-off began. "Viva Papa John!" called a group of lively young Italians who were immediately answered by another group singing out, "Papa John Paul". And everywhere there were chants of "Viva Papa Francisco".
The cheerfulness was in contrast to the solemn ceremony which unfolded just after 9am under the shadow of the Basilica. This was pope and circumstance at its height - the elevation to sainthood of the two pontiffs was concelebrated by 150 cardinals, 1,000 bishops, 6,000 priests and 24 heads of state - including Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
Silence fell over the Square as the formal part of the event took place, including the procession of papal relics - a piece of the skin of John XIII and a vial of blood from John Paul II. As Pope Francis announced that the two pontiffs had now reached sainthood, a wave of quiet emotion swept through the congregation - pilgrims wept and waved flags.
Overlooked by giant pictures of the two newest saints in his Church which hung on the front of the Basilica, Pope Francis delivered his homily, paying tribute to the pontiffs, hailing them as "two men of courage, they were priests, bishops, popes of the 20th century. 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," he said.
And the rumble of thunderous applause which rolled to the river after his homily ended was a message to the estimated tv audience of one billion tuned in to this historic celebration - the power of the Catholic Church is still a force to be reckoned with.