- - Sunday, April 27, 2014

VATICAN CITY — John Paul II and John XXIII, perhaps the two most beloved popes of the modern era, were declared saints Sunday before hundreds of thousands gathered in St. Peter's Square, a display of unity for a church increasingly divided over reforms.

Estimates for the number of pilgrims who made the trip to Rome for the rare double canonization varied from 800,000 to more than 2 million. St. Peter's Square was filled with the faithful, many of whom camped overnight beneath threatening skies to assure good vantage points.

A half-dozen large Roman squares were set aside to show the day’s events on oversized television screens.

By most counts, it was the largest gathering in Rome since John Paul’s funeral eight years ago.

Many made the long trip from Poland in a final large-scale homage to the pope from their homeland. When he was elected in 1978, John Paul was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.

“It was so moving to be part of a ceremony to honor two such holy men, including John Paul, who is the pride of all of Poland,” said Magda Bajek, a 40-year-old book editor who traveled 700 miles by bus from Krakow, John Paul’s hometown.

Sandro Calabrese, a 32-year-old hotel worker from Rome, said, “I will remember this great day for the rest of my life.”

It was the first time in the church’s more than 2,000-year history that two popes were named saints on the same day. With Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI joining Pope Francis for the ceremony, it also was the first time a canonization ceremony was attended by two pontiffs. The Italian press dubbed Sunday “the day of four popes.”

At least 150 cardinals and an estimated 1,000 bishops attended the ceremony, which also included about 50 heads of state or heads of government, and official delegations from another 100 countries, plus representatives from dozens of non-Catholic faiths.

The display of unity was welcome for a church that on its highest levels is increasingly divided by Francis’ reforms of hierarchy, including the role of the entrenched and powerful Roman curia, the Vatican Bank, and his efforts to confront the church’s role in ongoing sex scandals, as well as by the pontiff’s informal and unpredictable style that keeps church officials guessing.

“Pope Francis is wildly popular among the general population, but he’s really ruffling feathers in some parts of the church,” said the Rev. Alistair Sear, a retired church historian. “It is nice to see all sides come together for an event like this one.”

In his homily Sunday, Francis stayed away from his reform agenda, the politics behind the unusual dual canonization and the criticisms that sainthoods might have been rushed. Instead, he focused on characteristics he shared with the two new saints: their love for the poor and unfortunate and their roles as examples of what he called “Christian hope and joy.”

Both men, Francis said, “saw Jesus in every person who suffers and struggles,” and both “bore witness before the church and the world to God’s goodness and mercy.”

John and John Paul took different roads to sainthood: John, who was pope from 1958 to 1963, was seen as a man of vision, while John Paul, who was pope from 1978 to 2005, was cast as a man of decisive action.

John, nicknamed the “Good Pope,” is best remembered for convening the Second Vatican Council, the most wide-scale church reform in centuries that, among other things, eliminated the Latin-only Mass and took other steps to make the liturgy and rituals more accessible.

John Paul stood up to the Soviet Union and played a role in ending the Cold War. He apologized for past abuses of the church, including its opposition to science and its role in the Crusades, and he reached out to improve relations with Jews, Muslims and Orthodox Christians.

While John is esteemed by church liberals and John Paul by more conservative Catholics, both were beloved for their accessible and enthusiastic personalities, a trait they share with the current pontiff.

Both canonization cases raised controversy: John because the requirement for two “proven” miracles was waived so he could be declared a saint, and John Paul because he was made a saint eight years after his death, 14 years faster than anyone else in modern history. In most cases, declaring sainthood takes decades or even centuries.

John Paul also has been disparaged for doing too little to confront the problem of pedophile priests and other sex scandals that first arose during his papacy, leaving the issue to successors Benedict and now Francis.

John Paul has many stunning achievements and he was a towering figure on the geopolitical stage,” said Jason Berry, an author and commentator on the sex scandals within the church. “But he failed terrible on the abuse crisis.”

None of that mattered Sunday. As it did for John Paul’s funeral, the enthusiastic crowd spilled out of St. Peter's Square into the surrounding area and along the wide Via della Conciliazione nearly half a mile to the Tiber River, waving flags, banners and balloons and snapping photos.

When the dual sainthoods were declared, the echo of applause was so loud that it shook the stately buildings of the square.

“It was a beautiful, moving, emotional ceremony,” said Mary Anne Collins, a 70-year-old retired university administrator from Baltimore, who traveled to Rome with her two daughters. “I don’t know all the background stuff about everything that’s going on, but I can’t say it seems important right now. Today was about these two great men, and everyone was happy to have been part of it.”

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