More than 1 million Catholic Pilgrims have flocked to the Vatican in Rome where Pope Francis makes history today by declaring two former pontiffs saints. Retired Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, pontiff from 2005 to 2013, joins the current pope, adding to the pomp and ceremony of the historic occasion. The two former pontiffs who will become saints are Pope John Paul II (above right), leader of the Catholic Church for nearly three decades until his death in 2005, and Pope John XXIII (above left), who was pontiff for just five years, from 1958 until his death in 1963.
However the occasion has not been without controversy, with critics attacking the church saying the popular Polish Pope John Paul II should not be canonized at all. While many regarded Pope John Paul as a living saint during his lifetime, others were critical about his perceived “lack of action” when it came to the well-publicized sex abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic church, particularly in America. The longest-serving pontiff in history, he was also criticized for his views regarding “ordination of women,” as well as contraception, and his opposition to gay rights.
Others say that his death was too recent. Traditionally a period of five years has been identified as the time needed to determine whether a deceased pope really has lived a life of what the church terms “heroic virtue,” and should be declared saintly. However, Pope Benedict made the decision that Pope John Paul II should be canonized four months short of the five-year waiting period. The deceased Pope John XXIII was declared befitting of sainthood by Pope John Paul II in 2000.
When Pope Frances completes the canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II later today, and makes history by declaring two former pontiffs saints at the same ceremony, they will join the ranks of 76 popes who have already been canonized.
St. Peter’s Square is where the ceremony and Mass by Pope Frances and Benedict are taking place, with numerous cardinals and bishops – and of course the two popes – present. Not only will history be made because the two popes are present together at a canonization, but also because it will be the first Mass to be “concelebrated by two pontiffs” together. This unusual situation was made possible by Pope Benedict’s resignation as a pontiff last year. It is understood that since his retirement he has lived in a monastery in the grounds of the Vatican, where he spends his time mostly in prayer. When he resigned last February he blamed old age which he said had led to a “lack of strength” of both his mind and body.
As pilgrims poured into Rome yesterday, authorities stated they were increasing the number of police on the streets of the capital to about 10,000 to ensure that the huge crowds would be safe. They were reportedly also cracking down on tradesmen attempting to sell counterfeit goods, including rosaries that resembled those given away free by Pope Francis last November.
Many people spent the night sleeping close to St. Peter’s Square, hoping to be first in line when the Square was opened to the public at 5.30 this morning (3.30 GMT). Many others spent the night in Roman Catholic churches, where vigil prayers were held. However, when Pope Francis makes history today declaring the two former pontiffs saints, it will not only be those in Rome who are watching. Millions more will be glued to their television sets all over the world, watching Pope Francis and history in the making.
By Penny Swift