Pope Francis may have led the ceremony that declared two of his predecessors saints in Sunday's double canonization, but the event very much belonged to Poland.
The canonization of John Paul II, who was born Karol Jozef Wojtyla in Poland, in 1920 and who died in 2005, fulfilled the wish of millions of Poles who wanted to see their hero become a saint in their lifetimes. In his home country, John Paul, who was probably the most popular pope of the 20th Century, was both a towering political and religious figure.
When Pope Francis declared John Paul and John XXIII saints on Sunday morning, under grey skies, a crowd estimated at 250,000 in the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square and streets nearby erupted in applause. Hundreds of polish flags were waved and some pilgrims wept with joy.
“We are here because we love our pope, John Paul,” said Anna Luszcz, 29, a pediatrician from Poland who came to Rome with her mother, another devoted John Paul fan. “He fought against the Communist machine. Life became better in Poland after he became pope and gave us hope.”
Pope John, who died in 1963, was also highly popular, if less well known than John Paul among young Catholics. Born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli in Northern Italy in 1881, he presided over the first year of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (known as Vatican II), the revolutionary effort to modernize the Church.
The unprecedented double canonization was seen by some Catholics as a clever political ploy by Pope Francis. John Paul represented the conservative arm of the Church, while John, who was known as “the good pope,” was considered a liberal reformer. Declaring them saints simultaneously may have been Pope’s Francis’s way of reconciling the legacies of both men.
Pope Francis called John Paul and John “courageous men” during his mass.
John Paul’s canonization was not without controversy. After his funeral mass on April 8, 2005, an event that attracted about 4-million mourners to Rome, his admirers chanted “santa subito! – saint now! John Paul’s successor, Benedict XVI, duly complied and fast-tracked his beatification even though John Paul’s 26-year reign was marred by sexual abuse scandals in many of the Church’s dioceses around the world. Much of the cleanup work was left to his successor, Benedict.
Some Catholics think John Paul’s fast-track canonization cheapened the whole saint-making process, which typically takes decades, even centuries. Kate Wesselman of Los Angeles, who watched the canonizations from a wheel chair in St. Peter’s Square, said “The speed at which they pushed John Paul through seemed political. I don’t understand why it was being rushed.”
The vast majority of Poles, however, were thrilled by the quick canonization. Tens of thousands of Poles made the pilgrimage to Rome and turned the city into a sort of Polish festival in the days and hours before the canonizations. A few of them turned their trips into grueling treks in honour of their pope. A few arrived on horseback. Another group hiked all the way from Poland. Four middle-aged men spent 21 days biking from Poland to Rome. “The Alps were the hardest part of the trip because it was snowy and cold,” said Andrzef Michalski,” one of the bikers. “We did it because of our faith and love for John Paul. He was a gift to the Polish people.”
On the day before the canonizations, Polish choirs sang outside St. Peter’s and Polish masses were held in a night of prayer ahead of Sunday’s ceremony. “We are singing everywhere, on the streets and in the churches,” said Agnieszka Szwaygier, 21, one of the choir singers. “The crowds are crazy here, but we’re happy.”
The canonizations attracted an estimated 1-million pilgrims and tourists, most of whom had to watch the event from the enormous outdoor screens placed throughout the city. Before the ceremony, the Vatican’s TV service, known as CTV, estimated that the ceremony would attracte 2-billion global viewers, some of whom would see the canonization mass in 3D in cinemas.
The canonizations attracted 24 heads of state and 10 heads of government. One of the dignitaries was Lech Walesa, founder of Poland’s anti-Communist Solidarity movement, which was strongly supported by John Paul. Another was Benedict, whose surprise resignation as pope early last year triggered the conclave that elected Pope Francis.
Canada was represented by Julian Fantino, minister of Veteran Affairs. "On the eve of their canonization to Sainthood, we remember their service to humanity, especially Pope John Paul II who advanced the cause of freedom and tolerance, and Pope John XXIII for his commitment to the renewal and reform of the faith,” he said ahead of the event.
Follow me on Twitter: @ereguly
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Pope John Paul II's Polish name. This version has been corrected.