VATICAN CITY -- Around 800,000 people braved stormy skies and dense crowds today in St. Peter’s Square and at piazzas throughout Rome where giant screens were erected to watch Pope Francis create two new saints for the Catholic Church. Many millions more around the world tuned in to watch the grand event, which was broadcast in 3-D for the first time in Vatican history.
The ceremony, mostly in Latin, lasted nearly two hours, but the saint making was done within the first 15 minutes when Pope Francis announced the elevation of Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II to raucous applause in the packed square.
Retired Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, dressed in ceremonial white vestments, had a front row seat among the 150 cardinals in attendance. This is the second Francis and Benedict have appeared together in St. Peter’s Square, but the first time in a liturgical mass. The crowd cheered when Pope Francis greeted his predecessor at the beginning and the end of the service and Benedict officially "concelebrated" the mass, as did 7,000 other prelates in attendance. But apart from Benedict's prime seat and frequent close-ups by Catholic TV’s exclusive coverage, he didn’t participate in the ceremony.
The two new saints were represented on the altar by ornate reliquaries containing a slice of skin from Pope John XXIII, cut from a secret part of his body when he was exhumed in 2000, and a vial of blood from Pope John Paul II, taken from him when he died in 2005.
More than 90 high level delegations, including the Catholic queens of Belgium and Spain dressed in white, and Zimbabwe's controversial President Robert Mugabe, sat under tents erected in the square in case of rain. Pope Francis was uncharacteristically ceremonial, sticking largely to his scripted homily and dressed in the usual papal garb. Several hundred priests and deacons snaked through the packed square to give communion to those in attendance and choirs sang, bells rang and with the exception of a few drops before the ceremony began, the weather held.
On the eve of the double-barreled canonization, the skies over Rome boomed with thunder and poured with rain. At one point when police were trying to clear out St. Peter’s Square to close it for the night, a heavy downpour helped them along, almost like a divine intervention for crowd control.
Thousands of pilgrims slept on the streets of Rome overnight to ensure a spot in the square, bundled in sleeping bags along the sidewalks until the gates to St. Peter’s Square opened at 5:30 a.m. There were two near fits of impatient rage in the crowd: once when the gates to the square opened and people started pushing, and once when the priests came out to give communion.
Maria Campbell, who was born in Poland but now lives in Toronto, Canada, came to the Vatican at 3 a.m. to make sure she got a good seat. She told The Daily Beast that she had done the same thing in 2011 when John Paul II was beatified. “John Paul to a Pole is like St. Patrick to the Irish,” she said. “It is a very special moment to be Polish.”
After the ceremony, the pope ditched his mitre and ceremonial robes and hopped into the popemobile for a spin around the square. He first greeted the mayor of Rome, pulling him up into the vehicle to thank him for helping out, and then waved to the delighted crowds, at one point making the “I’ll call you” with his hand held to his ear in front of a group of pilgrims. The pope-mobile drove through the throng and down the long Via della Conciliazione, which was lined with cheering crowds, then disappeared behind a barricade. Jokes among the press corps centered on whether or not Francis was headed to the beach for lunch now that the long week between Easter and the canonization was over. No one ever did determine just where he went.
The popemobile steered clear of a handful of people who opposed the canonization of John Paul II and held up pictures of children abused by priests during his reign, but that was a small pocket of protests in a largely celebratory feel-good Catholic party. The Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests known as SNAP wrote an open letter to victims ahead of the ceremony: “Our hearts ache for each of you who were abused during and after John Paul II's long tenure as Pope. We know these days are difficult, even painful, for many of you, given the awful suffering so many still experience, suffering that is often made worse as the Catholic hierarchy praises wrongdoers instead of punishing them.”
Still, the day was a highlight in Catholic history, with two dead popes canonized by two living popes for the first and, and no doubt, the last time ever.