by Gjergji Evangjeli
On the Sunday after Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday, the Church celebrated the canonizations of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, two of the most influential popes of the 20th century and among the most important figures in the last one hundred years. It was Pope John Paul II who instituted the celebration of the Divine Mercy on the Sunday following Easter.
Vatican Radio estimates that the crowds in attendance for the Canonization Mass were about 800,000 in and around St. Peter’s Square with another 500,000 watching from big screens set up throughout Rome, as well as millions on TVs and computer screens throughout the world. Among those gathered in Rome, the white and red flags of Poland were ever prominent, reflecting the deep love of the Polish people for the first Polish Pope to be declared a Saint. Pilgrims started gathering in St. Peter’s Square from dawn.
Another historic feature of this occasion was the presence of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI alongside Pope Francis, making this the occasion where two pontiffs were present at the canonization of two other pontiffs. Benedict sat with his brother Cardinals and Bishops and was received with applause as he took his seat.
For his homily on this occasion, Pope Francis spoke on the importance of the wounds of Christ, which were mentioned in the day’s Gospel reading. Following His Resurrection, Christ appeared to His Apostles, but Thomas was not among them. Being incredulous of the news the others delivered to him, St. Thomas remarked that he would not believe Jesus had come back form the dead unless he saw the mark of the nails and the pierced side of the Redeemer. Remarking on this, the Pope said, “The wounds of Jesus are a scandal, a stumbling block for faith, yet they are also the test of faith. That is why, on the body of the risen Christ, the wounds never pass away: they remain, for those wounds are the enduring sign of God's love for us. They are essential for believing in God. Not for believing that God exists, but for believing that God is love, mercy and faithfulness.”
John XXIII and John Paul II, the Pope said, were “priests, bishops and popes of the twentieth century. [They] lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them, God was more powerful; faith was more powerful—faith in Jesus Christ the Redeemer of man and the Lord of history; the mercy of God, shown by those five wounds, was more powerful; and more powerful too was the closeness of Mary, our Mother.”
As part of the celebration of their sainthood, a vial of blood from St. John Paul II and a piece of skin from St. John XXIII were presented and placed beside the altar. Following the Eucharistic prayer, their names were included in the Litany of the Saints for the first time.
St. John Paul II’s canonization process is the quickest in modern times, and a certain sense of holy urgency was marked by the fact that then-Pope Benedict XVI waived the normal five year wait period required for his beatification following chants at the pontiff’s funeral Mass of “Santo subito” in Italian, or “Saint immediately” by the crowds.
Delegations from more than 100 countries were present for the proceedings, including 24 heads of state. A large Jewish delegation was also present, witnessing to the great closeness of Jewish-Christian relations under the guidance of these two Popes.
John XXIII (1881-1963), born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, was the fourth child of fourteen born to a family of sharecroppers in a village of Lombardy in Italy. He was sent away to study for the priesthood at age 11 and was created Cardinal-Priest and Patriarch of Venice on January 12, 1953 by Pope Pius XII. He is affectionately known as “il Papa Buono” in Italian, or “the Good Pope.” After convening the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII died on June 3, 1963. On July 5, 2013, Pope Francis waved the traditional requirement for a second miracle on account of his convening Vatican II and approved his cause for canonization.
John Paul II (1920-2005), born Karol Josef Wojtyla, was the youngest of three children born to Karol Wojtyla and Emilia Kakzorowska in the Polish town of Wadowice. His mother died when he was only eight years old, and by the time he was twenty, he had lost everyone in his immediate family. His early life was defined by the presence of both the Nazis and the Communists in Poland, both groups from whom he escaped punishment very narrowly. On October 16, 1978, the then-Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow was chosen to be the next Pope, the first non-Italian Pope since 1523. Pope John Paul II was easily one of the most recognizable personalities in the 20th century, and among his many other accomplishments, bears a major part of the responsibility for toppling the Communist regime in Eastern Europe.