On Divine Mercy Sunday, the Church celebrated the canonization John XXIII and John Paul II, two of the most influential figures of the 20th century.
Two tapestries, each bearing the image of the newly-declared saints, hung from the façade of Saint Peter’s basilica, overlooking the hundreds of thousands of people who had filled Saint Peter’s Square for the occasion. Thousands more poured into the streets around the Vatican, took part in the Mass by watching it on giant screens. Most notable was the vast number of pilgrims from Poland who have travelled to Rome – by bus, plane, and even on foot – to witness the canonization of the first Polish pope.
One of the special guests attending the Mass was Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who himself had beatified John Paul II, his predecessor and friend.
Opening his homily, Pope Francis noted that the canonizations coincide with Divine Mercy Sunday, a feast instituted by John Paul II. To mark this feast, the Holy Father reflected on “the glorious wounds of the risen Jesus”.
In the Gospel reading for the day, he spoke of how Christ had already appeared to the Apostles, with the exception of Thomas, who said he would not believe Jesus had Risen until he placed his finger in His wounds. It was not until Jesus appeared to them again that he believed, proclaiming “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28).
“The wounds of Jesus are a scandal, a stumbling block for faith, yet they are also the test of faith,” the Holy Father said. “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 areessential 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, however, were men who “were not afraid to look upon the wounds of Jesus, to touch his torn hands and his pierced side. They were not ashamed of the flesh of Christ, they were not scandalized by him, by his cross,” seeing Jesus in all those who suffer and struggle.
These courageous men, he said, were “filled with the parrhesia of the Holy Spirit,” bearing “witness before the Church and the world to God’s goodness and mercy.”
John XXIII and John Paul II, he 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”.
In their willingness to look “upon the wounds of Christ” and bear “witness to his mercy,” there dwelt within them “a living hope and an indescribable and glorious joy” (1 Pet 1:3,8).
Pope Francis also recalled how “John XXIII and John Paul II cooperated with the Holy Spirit in renewing and updating the Church in keeping with her pristine features, those features which the saints have given her throughout the centuries”.
“In convening the Council, John XXIII showed an exquisite openness to the Holy Spirit. He let himself be led and he was for the Church a pastor, a servant-leader. This was his great service to the Church”.
For his part, the Holy Father continued, “John Paul II was the pope of the family,” recalling the upcoming Synod on the family. “From his place in heaven,” he said, “he guides and sustains” in the journey toward the Synod.
Pope Francis called on the faithful to look to these saints to learn how “not to be scandalized by the wounds of Christ and to enter ever more deeply into the mystery of divine mercy, which always hopes and always forgives, because it always loves”.
In his short Regina Caeli address following Mass, the Pope greeted all those who had traveled to Rome for the event, and thanked all those who had contributed to its success. He made special mention of those pilgrims from Bergamo and Krakow – the cities where John XXIII and John Paul II came from, respectively. “You honor the memory of the two holy Popes, faithfully following their teachings”.
He also welcomed those representing the many countries around the world, who had come to “give tribute to the two pontiffs who had contributed in an indelible way to the development of peoples, and to peace.
One of the concelebrants for Sunday’s Mass was former archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac-Murphy O’Connor. He was a young priest when Angelo Roncalli was elected in 1958, he told ZENIT, having been ordained just one year previous. “I well remember his election and thinking: gosh, he’s quite old, he’s 77. I didn’t think he set the world on fire. But then, within a very short amount of time, he became “Good Pope John.” His humanity, his humor, his simplicity, endeared him to everybody.”
“I remember we were going into a prison here in Rome, and one of the prisoners said: Holy Father, I’m a murderer. Will God ever forgive me? You know what he did? He went up and embraced him”.
Many changes were instituted following the Second Vatican Council, which was initiated by John XXIII, including the celebration of Mass in the vernacular, as well as a greater emphasis on Scripture. “For me personally,” said the cardinal, “the new emphasis on ecumenism was something quite dramatically new, and it affected me not only then but right through my life as a priest and bishop”.
Reflecting back to the election of John Paul II, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor recalled that “from the very beginning one could see he was a leader”.
One of the highlights of John Paul II’s pontificate, he said, was his 1982 visit to Britain which he described as “very dramatic.”
“It was just the time of the Falklands Malvinas war. But he was determined to come. It was not just a success but it was a marvelous week because, for the first time, English and Scottish and Welsh people saw the Catholic community. Not just the Pope, but the Catholic community gathered around him.
“The most moving thing about Pope John Paul was the last five years of illness, his suffering, which he bore so bravely,” he said, recalling his last meeting with the Holy Father a couple years before his death.
Speaking in Italian, he said:“I remember asking him when he was going to beatify John Henry Newman. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘you need a miracle! I said, ‘well, the English aren’t very good at miracles. We don’t bully God enough like the Italians.’” Cardinal Newman has since been beatified.
“It’s nice to think, as I reflect on his long and eventful life, that the main thing about him is that he was a holy man,” he said.
In the hours leading up to Sunday’s canonization, thousands of pilgrims gathered along the streets surrounding the Vatican for a chance to make it into the Square.
Despite feeling “shoved” and “squeezed,” the smiling pilgrims said that “nothing could contain their joy.”
Representing John Paul’s Poland, pilgrims Magdalena Krefto and Jerzy Tarnowski were grateful to have secured an elevated place to stand and see. They told ZENIT about the pontiff of Krakow who “delivered a message of love.”
“We have a strong attachment to John Paul. Our affection and love for him has brought us to Rome both for the beatification and now for the canonization,” said Krefto, who added “how lovely it is to be back in the lovely and beautiful eternal city.”
“For the people of Poland it’s a very special time as he was a father to our country,” she said, noting the “huge presence” of Polish pilgrims.
Mr. Tarnowski added: “Through his extensive travels and visits, his words touched and taught peo
ple around the globe.”
Having flown ten hours from Nigeria for the event, Monica Ishioma told ZENIT John Paul II was “a lovely father.”
“To be a witness to the two blesseds becoming saints is an extraordinary moment.”
Recalling his two visits to Nigeria, she said he “preached love and forgiveness” and “touched the hearts of the Nigerian people,” particularly through his visit for the canonization of Nigerian Blessed Tansi. Visiting his village, she said, he “delivered a love message, preaching love and forgiveness.”
“It is important to be here,” she said, “because I want to witness the sainthood of both beloved popes and to experience the beautiful city of Rome”.