Fort Worth pilgrims express joy at attending canonization of Popes John XXIII, John Paul II

By Pat Svacina

Diocesan Communications Director


Editor’s note: Director of Communications Pat Svacina reports on the historic canonizations of popes St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II, from Piazza Navona, near St. Peter’s Square

Elated pilgrims knelt during the canonization Mass in Rome April 27. Diocesan Communications Director Pat Svacina was in Rome during the celebration and took this picture on his smartphone.

In a historic moment in the 2,000 years of the Catholic Church Sunday, two popes were canonized by Pope Francis with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI looking on, as did more than a million faithful who packed not only St. Peter’s Square but the streets and plazas stretching back into central Rome.

At a Mass lasting two hours and ten minutes, Pope Francis emotionally declared Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II saints, to the applause that rippled through the crowd of a million of what the Romans called “pilgrims.”  The waves of faithful began in earnest Friday and continued until the conclusion of Pope Francis’ simple but moving liturgy of canonization.

Normally bustling, commercial streets and plazas were transformed by the pilgrims into places of worship, whether in the far reaches of St. Peter’s Square or before one of more than a dozen huge television monitors erected throughout Rome. In the normally circus-like Piazza Navona, Pope Francis’ procession to start Mass brought a silence that fell over the more than 25,000 who were gathered before one of the monitors because of packed streets leading up to St. Peter’s.

The day was historic because for the first time in Church history two popes were canonized at the same time and because two living popes, for the first time in modern times, celebrated Mass together. More than 1,000 cardinals and bishops, including former Fort Worth Bishop Kevin Vann, joined in concelebrating the Mass.

Father James Wilcox of Immaculate Conception Parish in Denton was one the sea of priests who concelebrated.

Somewhere in the millions were the delegation led by Father Sojan George from Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in Wichita Falls.

Even to the Romans who are accustomed to spectacular events, this canonization Sunday had few with which to compare it.  One of the desk managers of nearby Hotel Portoghesi, David Schinzari, recalled that the 2000 Jubilee was reminiscent of Sunday’s double pope canonization, except during the Jubilee many celebrations were spread throughout that year instead of being held on one day.

The waves of pilgrim groups first packed into the churches of Rome and the special liturgies that were a prelude to the canonization Sunday. Some joined in special processions of the Eucharist while others took advantage of confessions heard in a variety of languages in more than a dozen of the churches.

Msgr. Andrew R. Baker of Allentown, Pennsylvania — who just the week before was in the Holy Land with Bishop Vann for meetings — and youth from his parish, visited San Salvatore in Lauro Church, across the Tiber River where relics of now St. John Paul II were exposed for veneration.  Standing at the doors of the church, Msgr. Baker described Saturday as a “tidal wave of people.” Yet it was an opportunity not to be missed.

For Fort Worth seminarian Justin Conover in his first year of studies at the North American College in Rome, Sunday was a challenge, despite the fact that one of his apostolates is leading tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Vatican. Justin employed his knowledge of the Holy See to help Fort Worth visitors.

Sunday the tidal waves turned early into a sea of faithful, anxious to move as close as possible to St. Peter’s Square. More than four hours before Pope Francis began Mass Sunday morning, those arriving found only limited sidewalk spaces far away from the square.  By 7 a.m. the gathering turned into a log jam of pilgrims, forcing tens of thousands, including bishops, priests, and religious to seek alternative locations around the city which offered opportunities to participate via live televised set-ups.

Pilgrims in the far away locations such as Piazza Navona treated the occasion the same as those in the square: as a historic Mass that deserved all the reverence and focus that the occasion demanded. The Piazza Navona faithful turned the area into a reverent holy space. The only thing missing from their celebration of the special Mass was the Communion that an army of priests and deacons distributed in St. Peter’s Square.

Bishop Michael Olson explains what the pilgrims were experiencing.

“The canonization of St, John XXIII and St. John Paul II are very significant for the life of the Church,’ he 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 the dignity of the human person. Each pope provided joyful examples of discipleship.”

The hallmark of the canonization was its simplicity and its focus on the spiritual aspect of this historic moment, a focus Pope Francis had envisioned when he choose to make two of his predecessors saints at the same time. The pope’s vision carried over to the secular sector where there was a marked absence of commercialization surrounding the canonization. And even the notorious Rome street hawkers seemed to disappear for the morning.

In the mass of people, Americans were particularly hard to locate. But not the Polish who had come “in mass” to witness one of their own become Saint John Paul II before their eyes. In Piazza Navona, the moment of canonization brought cheers and tears to a large Polish delegation that not only honored St. John Paul Il but also the Polish Solidarity movement that John Paul embraced as pope and that is credited with bringing Communism to an end in Poland.

Yet the canonizations were not an event for only the faithful of the two new saints’ era.  Youth from all corners of the world stood out among the most fervent of pilgrims, embracing every aspect of the event. Groups of youths led by young priests sang and chanted as they made their way to churches around Rome and toward St. Peter’s Square.

In the end, the hardships of travel, crowds, and long waits were no challenge for the pilgrims in exchange for the opportunity to witness Popes John XXIII and John Paul II becoming saints.

Pat---Rome-Pic-BUTTON.jpgIn a historic moment in the 2,000 years of the Catholic Church Sunday, two popes were canonized by Pope Francis with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI looking on, as did more than a million faithful who packed not only St. Peter’s Square but the streets and plazas stretching back into central Rome.