Hundreds of thousands see popes declared saints

Posted Sunday, Apr. 27, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

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Under cloudy, sometimes misty Rome skies, hundreds of thousands of undaunted pilgrims packed into St. Peter’s Square, streets leading to the Vatican and piazzas with specially installed television screens to witness history — two popes declared saints by Pope Francis.

While the world watched Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II become saints of the Catholic Church in a simple Mass ceremony on the steps of Saint Peter’s Square, the cameras failed to capture Rome being transformed into a massive church for one morning, a special Sunday morning.

The canonization of Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II, unprecedented as an event, was made even more special by the appearance of emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. It marked the first time that a reigning pope and a retired pope celebrated Mass together in public.

Despite the overwhelming size of the crowd, there was not one security check point, not one demanding usher and almost no souvenir hawkers to spoil a special moment in the 2,000-year history of the Catholic Church.

It was like participating in the Sunday Mass back home in Fort Worth, except on a much larger scale.

To the Romans, this was an extraordinary week. First, on Thursday Italians celebrated Liberation Day commemorating freedom at the end of World War II. On Friday waves of visitors — or “pilgrims” — streamed into the city.

By Saturday, every Roman church that normally sees a handful of tourists in a day was filled with worshipers who not only stood in amazement of the grand houses of worships but who participated in special litanies ranging from confession in multiple languages to processions through the neighborhood streets.

Camping on the streets

The most difficult task of the weekend was finding American pilgrims — including Texans — among the masses.

Father Sojourn George, a Fort Worth Diocese priest, brought a group to canonization. It was the job of Fort Worth seminarian Justin Conover to find the delegation a good viewing spot. Where they ended up is anyone’s guess. Father James Wilcox of Immaculate Conception Church in Denton did well, obtaining a ticket that allowed him to join other priests to con-celebrate the mass with the pope.

We arrived on a street leading to the Vatican four hours before the ceremony began, only to encounter crowded sidewalks and streets covered with people young and old who had camped out overnight. The campers had filled the square and the streets leading to the Vatican by the time the Sunday morning crowd started to make its way to St. Peter’s.

By 7 a.m. the crowds anywhere within 15 blocks of the square were a packed mass of humanity, all jockeying for a better position before a huge monitor. In this crowd, “the collar doesn’t mean anything, except you have to be understanding,” said Father Michael Joely of Alexandra, Va..

Even late arriving bishops, usually revered, were blocked by the human walls and forced to seek other routes in hopes of reaching St. Peter’s steps to celebrate the Mass with the Pope and 1,000 other cardinals and bishops.

By 8 a.m., with the roads to St Peter’s packed, the masses streamed back to piazzas like Piazza Navona, 20 blocks from the square, which is where we ended up celebrating the canonization with more than 25,000 others.

Silence and reverence

Despite the mass of people, the plaza took on a church atmosphere. When Pope Francis arrived in St. Peter’s Square, seen on the big screen at the other end of the plaza, cheers erupted but they were followed by the silence and reverence characteristic of a Catholic Church. The few who talked were quickly quieted by nearby worshipers.

In an amazing display of reverence, the plaza crowd stood quietly, praying, listening and finally, letting out huge cheers when Pope Francis declared his two predecessors as saints.

“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,” Francis said.

The virtual lack of commercialization at the event stood out as much as the spiritual intensity of the morning.

Fort Worth Diocese Bishop Michael Olson summed up well what the people’s presence in Rome signified.

“The canonization of St. John XXIII and St John Paul II are very significant for the life of the Church,” Bishop Olson said. “St. John XXIII initiated the renewal of the Church’s life through his convening of the Second Vatican Council at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. This council, among many other things, initiated a stance of dialogue with the modern world. St. John Paul II, among other accomplishments, offered substantive contributions to that dialogue with the modern world through his sound and vibrant philosophy of dignity of the human person. Each pope provided joyful examples of discipleship.”

To watch and observes millions of pilgrims participate in and witness authentic history of a 2,000 year old church tugged at even my time-armored emotions.

It seemed as though the two new saints worked together to perform what maybe only a small miracle in the eyes of the Church, but a miracle nonetheless in the eyes of those in Rome Sunday: Bringing together hundreds of thousands people from every corner of the world for a morning of unity and celebration.

Patrick Svacina, communications director for the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth, is in Rome for the canonization of Pope John XXII and Pope Paul II.

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