Acclaim for new saints far from universal
POPE John Paul II's blood was once shed in St Peter's Square during a failed assassination attempt. Yesterday a vial of that same blood formed the centrepiece of a ceremony in which the Polish pontiff was made a saint along with a predecessor, Pope John XXIII (inset top).
An ampoule filled with fluid taken from John Paul II (inset bottom) after he survived the 1981 assassination attempt by a Turkish gunman was reverently kissed by Pope Francis at the climax of an outdoor ceremony in St Peter's Square watched by an estimated 800,000 people in the Vatican and on giant screens in the streets of Rome. Millions more tuned in around the world.
Wearing white papal vestments, Pope Emeritus Benedict, who looked frail 13 months after his historic resignation from the seat of St Peter, was embraced by a smiling Pope Francis at the beginning of the service.
The Polish pope's blood, contained in an ornate reliquary decorated with silver olive branches, was presented to Francis by Floribeth Mora, a Costa Rican woman whose sudden recovery from an inoperable brain aneurism in 2011 was declared the second miracle that was required for John Paul to be made a saint.
It was placed on a table near the high altar and stood alongside a relic from John XXIII – a piece of skin, encased in a similar reliquary, that was taken from his exhumed body when he was beatified in 2000, the first step towards being made a saint.
John Paul II declared more saints – 482 – than all of his predecessors combined. Benedict canonised just 44, but the pace has picked up again under Francis in just over a year. In May last year he canonised in one go more than 800 Italian martyrs from the 15th Century who were massacred by the Ottomans for refusing to convert to Islam.
Asked why the Catholic Church continued to make saints, a process regarded by some as arcane, if not medieval, Fr Rosica said: "Because they are heroes and the world needs heroes. They are role models for the rest of us as we try to live a holy life."
While the crowds waved national flags and cheered wildly when Francis swept by in his white Popemobile, some Catholics question the whole concept of canonising popes, saying it is too political. "Modern popes bring with them a certain amount of political baggage. If you canonise a pope, it can be seen as one faction protecting their favourite and enshrining his legacy," said John Thavis, a Vatican analyst and author of 'Vatican Diaries', a best-selling book about dysfunction inside the Holy See.
Victims of sex abuse by paedophile priests were also staunchly opposed to John Paul's canonisation, arguing that he turned a blind eye to reports of abusive clergy from dioceses around the world.
Francis has been careful to show no favouritism towards either John XXIII, a progressive who initiated key reforms to the church in the Sixties, and John Paul II, a conservative who tried to roll back some of those changes.
"We declare and define as saints the blessed John XXIII and John Paul II," Francis said in a Latin prayer from the altar in front of St Peter's Basilica. The former pontiffs were "two men of courage", he told the crowds. "They were priests, bishops and popes of the 20th Century. They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them."