VATICAN CITY — An overcast and drizzly morning gave way to bright skies at the very moment that Pope Francis proclaimed Popes John XXIII and John Paul II saints at the Vatican Sunday.
Speaking in Latin at the canonization Mass in St. Peter’s Square for the two popes, Francis confirmed they were in heaven with the words: "We declare and define 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."
St. Peter’s Square, filled with what the Vatican estimated were 800,000 pilgrims from all over the world — with especially large contingents from Poland (John Paul II’s birthplace) and the north of Italy (the home of John XXIII) — erupted with cheers and applause.
The two-hour mass got underway at 10 a.m., shortly after Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI arrived to take his seat to a warm welcome from the crowd.
In his homily, Pope Francis reflected on the reading of the day — the doubting of the Apostle Thomas who said he would only believe if he could touch Jesus’ wounds.
"The wounds of Jesus are a scandal, a stumbling block for faith, yet they are also the test of faith," the Pope said. "They are essential for believing in God. Not for believing that God exists, but for believing that God is love, mercy and faithfulness."
Saints John XXIII and John Paul II, he added, "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; they did not despise the flesh of their brother because they saw Jesus in every person who suffers and struggles," the pope said. "These were two men of courage, filled with the parrhesia of the Holy Spirit, and they bore witness before the church and the world to God’s goodness and mercy."
He noted that the two popes had lived through the "tragic events" of the 20th century, "but they were not overwhelmed by them" as, for them, God, faith and the Lord’s mercy were "more powerful." They showed the hope and joy of Easter, "forged in the crucible of self-denial, self emptying, utter identification with sinner" graces given to the earliest church fathers.
Both popes "cooperated with the Holy Spirit" in renewing and updating the church, he said. John XXIII, he stressed, showed an "exquisite openness" to the Holy Spirit and let himself be led by it.
For his part, John Paul II was the "pope of the family" and once said he wanted to be remembered as such. Francis was "particularly happy" with this fact, especially as the Catholic Church is "journeying with families" in preparation for an October synod dedicated to the family. It is surely a journey which, from his place in heaven, he guides and sustains."
The pope closed his homily by calling on these two new saints to intercede for the church to ensure the synod is a "pastoral service to the family.
"May both of them teach us 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," he said.
Former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Raymond Flynn told Newsmax he had been to many other such occasions, but this was "the most dramatic and most moving event" he and his wife had ever attended.
"It’s almost like history coming before you when you think about all the things that I’ve lived through," he said. "It’s like a movie but it’s real."
He felt it signified the end of an "extraordinary chapter" in world history, and added that "when you put it all together, we’re the lucky ones able to grow up and live in this kind of history learning about two remarkable men, to witness this, and to do so in the presence of two popes and two saints."
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said the canonization was "extraordinary," noting it was a day of four popes including Benedict XVI. He said there was "no question" that the "core message" of both popes is that "every human being has a basic dignity and that dignity has to be respected, including the right to religious liberty."
This message, Gingrich told Newsmax, "is at the center of the Church’s modern message to the world."
He also said the "deliberate acceleration" of John Paul being made a saint — a process some criticized — "is really an effort to draw to the next generation to be aware of what courage can do and particularly what heroic courage can do when dedicated to bringing Christ to the world."
Michael Reagan, son of Ronald Reagan — the former president widely credited with helping to bring down Soviet Communism along with John Paul II — also noted the weather changing at the moment of Francis’ proclamation.
"I told everyone not to worry about the forecast of rain," he said. "When my dad was sworn in it looked like rain until he got up to speak and then the sun broke out."
"God is good," he said.
Pilgrims began camping out for the canonization long before midnight Saturday, and by morning St. Peter’s Square and the main boulevard leading up to St. Peter’s Basilica was filled with people.
Max, who had traveled from from Paris, France, said he felt he knew John Paul II and so "wanted to participate. It is the first time that someone I know has been a saint," he said. "For a Catholic, it is very important. I want to share this experience with everyone back home."
Alix, also from Paris, said she came to Rome for the canonization because John Paul II was a "great figure" from her childhood.
"I grew up with his image in my head," she said. "He faced communism and many historical events. For young people, he encouraged us, motivated us. He told us we did not have to be ashamed of our faith, at school or work. He is a great example of holiness."
Fr. Miguel De La Porta, a Spaniard living in Rome, said the two popes are "models of sanctity, very beautiful." John XXIII had a "personal approach to the Lord”; John Paul II had "evangelization - bringing others to Him."
"The saints do not want anything for themselves," he said. "They just want to bring people to Him. I think they will bring many people to the Lord."
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