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

Pope Francis declared his two predecessors John XXIII and John Paul II saints on Sunday before hundreds of thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square, an unprecedented ceremony made even more historic by the presence of retired Pope Benedict XVI.

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

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

Poep Francis took a deep breath and paused for a moment before reciting the saint-making formula in Latin, as if moved by the history he was about to make.

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

Pope Benedict was sitting off to the side of the altar with other cardinals. He had arrived in the square on his own to cheers and applause, wearing white vestments and white bishops’ miter. He stood to greet Italy’s president and later Pope Francis when he arrived, and sang along during the hymns that followed the canonization rite.

Italy’s interior ministry predicted 1 million people would watch the Mass from the square, the streets surrounding it and nearby piazzas where giant TV screens were set up to accommodate the crowds eager to follow along.

By the time the ceremony began, Via della Conciliazione, the main boulevard leading from the square, nearby streets and the bridges across the Tiber were packed.

Polish pilgrims carrying the red and white flags of John Paul’s beloved homeland had been among the first to push into the square well before sunrise, as the human chains of neon-vested civil protection workers trying to maintain order finally gave up and let them in.

“Four popes in one ceremony is a fantastic thing to see and to be at, because it is history being written in our sight,” marvelled one of the visiting Poles, David Halfar. “It is wonderful to be a part in this and to live all of this.”

Most of those who arrived first at St. Peter’s had camped out overnight nearby on air mattresses and sleeping pads. Others hadn’t slept at all and took part in the all-night prayer vigils hosted at a dozen churches in downtown Rome.

By mid-morning, the scene in the square was quiet and subdued perhaps due to the chilly gray skies and cumulative lack of sleep unlike the rollicking party atmosphere of John Paul’s May 2011 beatification when bands of young people sang and danced in the hours before the Mass.

Pope Benedict had promised to remain “hidden from the world” after resigning last year, but Pope Francis has coaxed him out of retirement and urged him to take part in the public life of the church.

In a dress rehearsal of sorts, Pope Benedict attended the February ceremony in which Pope Francis installed 19 new cardinals. But celebrating Mass together with Pope Francis was something else entirely, a first for the 2,000-year-old institution and a reflection of Pope Francis’ desire to show the continuity in the papacy, despite different personalities, priorities and politics.

Pope John XIII, who reigned from 1958-1963, is a hero to liberal Catholics for having convened the Second Vatican Council. The meetings brought the church into the modern era by allowing Mass to be celebrated in local languages rather than Latin and by encouraging greater dialogue with people of other faiths, particularly Jews.

During his quarter-century papacy from 1978-2005, Pope John Paul II helped topple communism through his support of Poland’s Solidarity movement. His globe-trotting papacy and launch of the wildly popular World Youth Days invigorated a new generation of Catholics, while his defense of core church teaching heartened conservatives after the turbulent 1960s.

RELATED NEWS

In the driver’s seat with saintsApril 27, 2014

More In: World | International | News