Never before have two popes been canonised together and the day took on more weight when Pope Emeritus Benedict emerged from retirement to take a front row seat at the ceremony, dressed in the white robes of a cardinal and smiling as he greeted Francis.
“We declare and define John XXIII and John Paul II to be saints and we enrol them among the saints, decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole Church,” said Francis after he was asked three times – as tradition dictates – to confer sainthood.
“These were two men of courage,” Francis said of John Paul II – the Polish pontiff credited with helping to bring down the Soviet Union – and John XXIII, who launched the modernising Second Vatican Council in 1962.
As 500,000 watched in and around St Peter’s and another 300,000 gathered at giant screens around Rome, relics were unveiled for each pope. A patch of skin taken from the body of John when it was exhumed for his beatification in 2000 was placed on the altar, mounted in a gold and silver plated reliquary.
A phial of blood from the body of John Paul was presented to Francis by Floribeth Mora Díaz, a Costa Rican woman whose recovery from a brain aneurysm was attributed to her prayers to John Paul.
St Peter’s was packed with Poles waving their national flag. They had travelled by plane, bus, and horseback to Rome to honour their native son, who was elected pope in 1978 and whose backing for the Solidarity movement in Poland was key to the overthrow of the Communist regime and the crumbling of the Eastern bloc in 1989.
His legacy has been clouded by his alleged inaction over the sexual abuse scandal in the Church before his death in 2005, but the Poles who formed the largest single national group in St Peter’s yesterday had no doubts about his qualities.
“This has been one of the most beautiful days of my life,” said Anna Meyer, 27, a physiotherapist from Plock, central Poland, who joined the crowd waiting on Saturday night to be allowed by police into Via della Conciliazione, the avenue leading into St Peter’s Square.
Thousands who were turned back from the square at dawn formed processions heading for piazzas where screens had been set up to show the ceremony.
It was Francis’ decision to add John XXIII to the canonisation roster yesterday despite the late pope having just one miracle to his name – a nun who recovered from a serious illness in 1966 – rather than the two normally required.
Elected in 1958 when he was 76, John was seen as a mere stop-gap. His decision to launch the Second Vatican Council in 1962, which helped bishops replace the Latin mass with the vernacular, encouraged dialogue with other faiths and helped decentralise Vatican power, has made him a hero to progressive Catholics.
In his homily yesterday Francis praised both popes for backing the work of the council.
“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,” he said.
“They were priests, bishops and popes of the 20th century,” he added. “They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them.”
Pope John Paul II: The Polish conservative who breached the walls of communism
Born Karol Jozef Wojtyla in 1920 in Wadowice, Silesia, Pope John Paul II, as he would become on election to the papacy in 1978, became one of the most influential figures of the 20th century.
The Polish pontiff revolutionised the papacy by travelling to 129 countries and is considered to have been seen in person by more people than any figure in history.
A former goalkeeper and actor, John Paul arrived in the Vatican after his election with one pair of shoes, a pair of hiking boots and a set of skis.
He reached out to other faiths, becoming the first pope to pray in a mosque and the first pope to visit the Scotland.
His greatest goal was to challenge communism and among his first visits was to Poland, where he told a crowd of more than two million: “Do not be afraid”.
However, his insistence on getting close to the public almost cost him his life. In May 1981, he was shot and wounded by a Turk in St Peter’s Square.
After a long recovery, he visited and forgave his would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Agca. The following year he paid a visit to Britain, where he drew huge crowds including a mass for 300,000 people in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow.
However, he closed the door to the “modernism” of the Second Vatican Council and was criticised for turning a blind eye to the crisis of clerical sex abuse.
In later life, John Paul suffered from Parkinson’s disease but refused to step down and believed that by making his suffering public he was sharing the pain of the elderly and infirm around the world. He died in 2005.
Pope John XXIII: Pontiff opened window on to the modern world
When little children cried in his presence, Pope John XXIII joked that it was because he was so ugly.
Born in 1881, the fourth child in a family of 14, his parents farmed in the Italian region of Lombardy.
As a Vatican diplomat, Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli was based in Istanbul, Turkey, during the Second World War where he made efforts to secure the safe passage of Jewish refugees to Palestine.
He also intervened to liberate Jews from a concentration camp.
After the war, he was appointed the Patriarch of Venice and was elected pope in 1958 after the death of Pius XII, whose conservative pontificate lasted 19 years and took in the Second World War.
Among John’s first acts was to strike out the word “perfidious” when describing the Jews in the Good Friday liturgy and to later issue an apology for the Catholic Church’s treatment of Jewish people over the centuries.
He made pastoral visits around Rome, including a visit to a prison where he told the inmates: “You could not come to me, so I came to you”.
Viewed as a “caretaker”, he shocked the Catholic world by announcing a Second Vatican Council to debate the future of the church and its relationship with the modern world.
Most significantly, the council led to mass no longer being said in Latin but in each nation’s own language.
John said that he wished to open a window and let air into the Catholic Church.
His most notable encyclical, Pacem in terris, (Peace on Earth) broke ground in that it addressed “all men of good will” and not just the Catholic faithful.
John died two months later, in June 1963, of stomach cancer. His successor, Paul VI – a fellow Lombard – was elected that month and served until August 1978. He was succeeded by John Paul I, whose papacy lasted only a month.