Sunday, April 27, 2014 12:53 am
Crowds of pilgrims revelled in Rome on Saturday a day before Pope Francis and his predecessor Benedict XVI confer sainthood on John Paul II and John XXIII in a historic effort to unite the Catholic Church.
Tens of thousands of people including families and singing groups of Scouts armed with folding chairs and sleeping mats milled around St Peter’s Square, trying to stake out their places for the ceremony on Sunday.
Pauline Tallen, a former minister from Nigeria, who was dressed in a blue and yellow boubou dress emblazoned with images of John Paul II, said she had travelled for the ceremony because the Polish pope “had a great impact on me. I met him in 1983 here in Rome, and it changed my life.”
The canonisation of two of modern-day Catholicism’s most influential figures will be presided over by Pope Francis at a grandiose mass co-celebrated with the 87-year-old Benedict XVI in a rare public appearance.
The pope emeritus, in his papal white cassock, will be sitting alongside red-robed cardinals near the altar.
The Vatican said 98 foreign delegations will be attending including former Polish president Lech Walesa, whose Solidarity movement backed by John Paul II helped topple communism in eastern Europe.
The kings of Belgium and Spain were also expected, as well as Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe — despite a ban from entering the European Union, which does not apply in the sovereign Vatican state.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk had also been expected to attend the canonisations but was forced to cut short his visit after meeting Francis on Saturday because of the spiralling tensions at home.
“We’ve been counting down the days. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” pilgrim Gerek from Poland said, adding: “We’re already hoarse from singing!”
Over a million people are expected to cram the streets around the Vatican for the festivities or watch the mass in different languages on 19 giant screens across the city, from the Colosseum to Piazza Navona.
The weather outlook was mixed for the event.
The leader of a boisterous crowd freshly arrived from Lebanon said: “We have nothing with us, just our flags. But we’re happy to be here even if it rains!”
Priests strummed guitars and sang “Hallelujah” in the streets, while others holding high crucifixes and wearing the Vatican’s yellow and white flag colours led prayers amid curious crowds of tourists licking ice-cream cones.
A string quartet played classical music in the crowd.
Tapestry portraits of the saints-to-be were on show high above the crowd in St Peter’s Square, while posters in the surrounding streets showed John Paul II and John XXIII already boasting shiny halos, presided over by a benevolently smiling Pope Francis.
– Impromptu prayer under stars –
The late pontiffs will join the roster of saints at what will be the first-ever canonisation of two popes at the same time, seen as an attempt to unite conservatives and reformists.
Poland’s charismatic, globe-trotting John Paul II became an icon to many conservative Catholics, while Italian John XXIII — nicknamed “Good Pope John” — garnered his liberal reputation by calling the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, which ushered in reforms that breathed new life into the Church.
By sainting them together, Pope Francis, 77, “is speaking not just to the outside world but to rival camps within the Catholic fold who see John XXIII and John Paul II as their heroes,” said prominent US-based Vatican expert John Allen.
Churches will remain open all night Saturday for vigils, while impromptu prayer sessions are expected among those sleeping out under the stars.
Italy’s civil protection agency has 3,500 volunteers on hand, including 25 Polish cultural guides and 20 psychiatrists trained in dealing with stress and panic attacks. Pilgrims will have 980 chemical lavatories at their disposition, as well as free water.
The #2popesaints social media campaign for the canonisation launched an app with maps and events for pilgrims called Santo Subito! — the rallying cry sent up by mourners upon the death of John Paul II in 2005, demanding that he be made a saint immediately.
The Vatican’s official bureau for pilgrims said 4,000 coaches bearing pilgrims would be arriving in the run-up to the 10:00 am (0800 GMT) mass, along with special trains and boats, while other faithful will watch the canonisations in 3D at cinemas across the world, from Francis’s native Argentina to Lebanon.
Among the pilgrims was German vintage car enthusiast Marek Schramm, who drove to Rome especially in a 1958 Polish-made car that belonged to John Paul II before he became pope and has “JP2” in its numberplate.
The unparallelled double ceremony has drawn criticism from some who argue the canonisation process was rushed and the pontiffs in question do not deserve the honour.
John XXIII had only been credited with one of the two supposed miracles required for candidates to be declared saints, but Francis approved his canonisation anyway, saying that the pope who died in 1963 was so widely adored that he did not need a second miracle.
Despite accusations against John Paul II that he hushed up child sex crimes by priests that began to come to light at the end of his pontificate, his elevation has been the fastest since the 18th century when the current canonisation rules were installed.