- Associated Press - Sunday, April 27, 2014

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis declared his two predecessors John XXIII and John Paul II saints before some 800,000 people on Sunday, an unprecedented ceremony made even more historic by the presence in St. Peter’s Square of emeritus Pope Benedict XVI.

Never before have a reigning pope and a retired pope celebrated Mass together in public, much less at an event honoring two of their most famous predecessors.

Benedict’s presence was a reflection of the balancing act that Francis envisioned when he decided to canonizeJohn and John Paul together, showing the unity of the Catholic Church by honoring popes beloved to conservatives and progressives alike.

Francis made that point clear in his homily, praising both men for their work associated with the Second Vatican Council, the groundbreaking meetings that brought the 2,000-year-old institution into modern times.John convened the council while John Paul helped ensure its more conservative implementation and interpretation.

“John XXIII and John Paul II cooperated with the Holy Spirit in renewing and updating the church in keeping with her pristine features, those features which the saints have given her throughout the centuries,” Francis said.

He praised John for having allowed himself to be led by God to call the council, and he hailed John Paul’s focus on the family — an issue Francis has taken up himself.

“They were priests, bishops and popes of the 20th century,” Francis said. “They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them.”

It was Benedict who put John Paul on the fast-track for possible sainthood just weeks after he died in 2005, responding to the chants of “Santo Subito!” or “Sainthood Now!” that erupted during his funeral Mass. His canonization is now the fastest in modern times.

Francis then tweaked the Vatican’s own saint-making rules, deciding that John could be made a saint without the necessary second miracle usually required for canonization.

Francis took a deep breath and paused for a moment before reciting the saint-making formula in Latin at the start of the ceremony, as if moved by the history he was about to make in canonizing two popes at once.

He said that after deliberating, consulting and praying for divine assistance “we declare and define that Blessed John XXIII and John Paul II be saints and we enroll them among the saints, decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole church.”

Applause broke out from a crowd that stretched from St. Peter’s to the Tiber River and beyond.

“This is such a historic moment,” marveled the Rev. Victor Perez, who brought a group from the John PaulHigh School in Houston, Texas and waited for nearly 12 hours to get near St. Peter’s. “John Paul was so impactful on the church. He completed the work of Vatican II. Today honors the last 50 years of what God has done in the church.”

In John Paul’s native Poland, bells tolled as soon as Francis pronounced the two men saints.

“He changed Poland and he changed us with his teaching and with his visits here,” an emotional Maria Jurek said as she watched the proceedings on giant TV screens at a sanctuary dedicated to John Paul in Krakow.

Story Continues →