Canonization rites: Greatest show on earth, a spiritual feast
ROME – Some 800,000 people will fill St. Peter’s Square up to Castel Sant’Angelo and tens of thousands more are expected to swamp the areas around St. Peter’s Basilica when two of the most beloved popes of the modern era—Blessed John XXIII and Blessed John Paull II—are declared saints today in what stands to become the biggest canonization rites in history.
Thousands of pilgrims started to fill the plaza in front of St. Peter’s Basilica Saturday evening when prayer vigils in 11 Roman churches were held on the eve of the canonization.
Earlier on Saturday, in what was seen as a run-up event to the canonization, thousands flocked to the Cathedral of San Lorenzo in Alba in Northern Italy to witness the beatification of the Italian Dominican biblical scholar Fr. Giuseppe Girotti, who was martyred in Dachau, Germany for aiding Jews during the Second World War.
Whetting further the appetite of pilgrims is the prospect that the canonization would be carried out by not one but by two popes—Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. But Vatican officials said that while Benedict had indeed been invited to join the canonization, they could not confirm if he would do so because of his frail condition.
The German pope resigned last year due to old age.
Despite Vatican caution against expecting too much that Benedict would attend the canonization, the Italian media and tourism establishment have started calling April 27 as “the day of four popes.”
Estimates for the size of the crowd that would witness the ceremony have ranged from a million to seven. But whether guardedly conservative or wildly optimistic, the projections cannot gainsay that the event would be a blockbuster.
“It’s going to be the greatest show on earth, a spiritual feast,” said Fr. Gaspar Sigaya, the Filipino archivist of the Dominican curia in Santa Sabina in Rome.
Sigaya said the spiritual underpinning of the spectacle should not be missed out.
“The joint canonization of two great popes is borne of their authentic and peculiar charisma toward the poorest of the poor,” he said. “They embody renewal and openness to the signs of the time and Gospel values expressed in true witnessing.”
Italian authorities have pulled out all stops to make the canonization something of an Italian expo and a tourism showcase, but the ceremony will be a dignified affair in keeping with Pope Francis’ policy of modest celebrations, Vatican organizers said.
Still, the modesty wouldn’t obscure the pageantry of the event.
The canonization ceremony will have 150 cardinals and 1,000 bishops concelebrating with Pope Francis, Vatican officials said. Ninety-three official delegations and 24 heads of state will attend the Mass.
The religious pageantry will be witnessed by other religions that have sent representatives to the canonization, such as the major non-Catholic Christian churches—the Orthodox and the Anglican churches—as well as representatives of the two other major monotheist religions—Judaism and Islam.
For all its modest solemnity, the canonization ceremony has promised to become a popular blockbuster as pilgrims from all over the world have started to sing the anthems dedicated to the two popes especially made for the canonization: Pastore Buono del Gregge di Cristo for John XXIII and Aprite Le Porte a Cristo for John Paul II.
Another proof that Rome has been gripped by the canonization fever is the 2,500 Roman locals who have volunteered to provide civil defense work to guide and provide security to the tens of thousands of pilgrims, said the Diocese of Rome, Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, which is the Vatican’s pilgrim center, and Rome’s City Council.
The volunteers have been distributing throughout the weekend four million free water bottles and handing out 150,000 free liturgical booklets. They’re also providing information about free access to the Mass, which will be from the river end of Via della Conciliazione, and disability assistance points, which will be located in three areas close to St Peter’s Square.
Some 1,000 extra portable toilets have been set up close to St Peter’s and surrounding areas, while 17 giant video screens will be broadcasting the Mass live around the city, including one at the Terminal 3 departure lounge of Rome’s Fiumicino airport.
A prayer vigil started at 5 p.m. on Saturday in the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls, one of four major papal basilicas, followed by adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and an exhibition of items related to Pope John XXIII and the opening of the Second Vatican Council.
At 6 pm, the prayer vigil started at the Basilica of St. John Lateran for Catholic pilgrims from Bergamo, the home of John XXIII.
Other prayer vigils, with Confession in different languages, were held throughout Saturday night in churches around the city center.
The shower of affection for the two popes is not surprising since the two are considered very popular when they were alive and even after death.
Although best known for convoking the Second Vatican Council that reformed and updated the Church and for issuing Pacem in Terris and Mater et Magistra, major papal encyclicals on world peace and social justice, John XXIII was also well regarded for his kindness and solicitude. Many have been able to relate to his image as a paternal figure and a simple and caring pastor. Pope Francis has described him as a good old “country priest.”
John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope since 1523 who helped crush communism in Europe. He was the most-travelled pope in history, his apostolic journeys outside of Europe numbering 104.
Pope Francis released Friday a letter addressed to Bergamo, home province of John XXIII, urging its people to keep alive the memory of the pope as a “good pastor.” He also released a video for Polish TV in which he repeated Pope Benedict XVI’s characterization of John Paul II as a “titan” for “open(ing) up . . . society, culture, political and economic systems to Christ.”
But while they are home-town heroes to Italy and Poland, John XXIII and John Paul II are acclaimed in the wider world and have universal appeal.
Pilgrims from all over the world have descended on Rome eager to witness the canonization of two well-revered and extremely likeable popes.
On Friday, pilgrims carrying their nation’s flags toured St. Peter’s Basilica and the three other major basilicas and other churches and holy sites, clearly getting in the mood of the canonization.
Pilgrims from Eastern Europe waved their national flags. Most evident was the Polish flag since Poles would not only see their favorite son declared saint, but would also take pride that his canonization would take place on Divine Mercy Sunday, the Roman Catholic solemnity or feast which originated from the Catholic devotion to the Divine Mercy that Polsh Saint Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938) reported as part of her encounters with Jesus.
It was John Paul II himself who canonized Kowalska in 2000.
Also seen were flags from Pope Francis’s home country, Argentina, as well as from other Latin American countries eager to bask in the canonization euphoria.
Pope John Paul II visited Latin America on 18 of his 104 international trips, including five visits to Mexico and four to Brazil.
But especially for the canonization, special interest is on Costa Rica, since it was the miraculous healing in 2011 of Costa Rican Floribeth Mora Diaz from terminal brain aneurysm that she attributed to the late Polish pontiff’s intercession that fulfilled the requirement by Vatican authorities of another miracle for John Paul II to be declared saint.
Diaz will in fact attend the canonization today. She attended Saturday morning a Mass for the Costa Rican community at the St. Anne’s Church in the Vatican.
At a news conference, Diaz described how Blessed John Paul II reportedly cured her of a brain aneurysm when doctors warned she only had a month left to live.
“My greatest concern was not dying but concern about what would happen to my children,” she said.
Diaz said she began praying to the late pontiff while clutching a magazine cover baring his portrait.
“When I woke up in the morning, I looked at the magazine cover which showed Pope Wojtyla [John Paul II’s birth surname] with his arms outstretched,” she said.
“I felt a deep sense of healing,” she added. “I heard his voice say to me, ‘Get up and don’t be afraid.’ I went to my husband in the kitchen and told him I was cured. I realized little by little the illness had been taken away.”
Diaz said Vatican authorities flew her to Rome and committed her to a church-run hospital, where she was registered under a pseudonym as doctors—unaware of her miraculous healing—conducted a battery of tests on her in October 2013.
“I was meant to be just a tourist from Costa Rica who had fallen ill while on holiday in Italy,” she said. “They [the Vatican] demanded the greatest secrecy. No one was to know who I really was.”
The Roman hospital later resolved there was “no medical explanation” on her sudden recovery, and the Vatican declared the case a miracle.
Biblical scholar beatified
In Alba north of Rome on Saturday, the canonization fever was also burning as evident in the thousands of pilgrims who flocked to the San Lorenzo Cathedral in Duomo di Alba in Cuneo for the beatification of Dominican friar Giuseppi Girotti.
Pope Francis’ official legate, Cardinal Giovanni Coppa, declared Father Girotti a “Beato” or Blessed before the cathedral crowd that included Fr. Bruno Cadore, master general of the Order of Preachers or Dominicans.
Girotti established a vast network of support for Jews after the Germans occupied Italy in 1943. A biblical scholar trained at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem and the Angelicum in Rome, he called the Jews “Carriers of the Word of God” and “Elder Brothers.”
Arrested in 1944, Girotti was sent to Dachau, Germany. Imprisoned with 1,000 other priests in Cabin 26 that had been meant for just 180 inmates, he became ill and was sent to the infirmary, where he got a lethal injection of gasoline. He died on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945.
On his bunk, his fellow inmates wrote, “Here slept Saint Guiseppe Girotti”.
In 1995, 50 years after his martyrdom, he received a posthumous medal from the State of Israel as belonging to the “Righteous Among the Nations” for risking their lives in helping the Jews during the Holocaust. A tree was also planted in his name and honor at the Avenue of the Righteous in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
In what’s again a display of the Catholic Church’s growing sophistication in the use of the new media, the Vatican said it has released details of two free apps on the figures of Blessed John Paul II and Blessed John XXIII ahead of the canonization.
The apps can be accessed, free of charge.
Vatican said the link will lead to a page, entitled “Canonization John Paul II John XXIII,” where people can download the two apps onto their smartphones, one focusing on John Paul II and the other focusing on John XXIII. The apps are available in both the Android and IOS operating systems.
On Friday, Pope Francis sent formal messages of congratulations to the Italian and Polish compatriots of John XXIII and John Paul II.
In a written letter published in the Bergamo newspaper L’ Eco di Bergamo, Francis urged the citizens of Bergamo, where Angelo Roncalli, the Christian name of John XXIII, hailed from, and where he did his early priestly ministry, to “give thanks to God for his holiness, a great gift to the universal Church.”
The Argentinian Pope, who has Italian lineage, urged Bergamo and the quaint village Sotto il Monte, the birthplace of Roncalli, to “conserve the memory of the land in which it germinated: a land of profound faith lived in daily life, in families that are poor but united by the love of the Lord, of communities capable of sharing in simplicity.”
The letter was addressed not only to Catholics, but also “to those who do not belong to the Church and to the whole civil community of Bergamo.”
To the Polish nation, Francis sent a video message, rebroadcast by Polish Television (TVP) and by Polish Radio, in which he expressed happiness that he would proclaim John Paul II a saint.
Francis expressed his gratitude to the Polish pope for his “tireless service, his spiritual guidance, for bringing the Church into the third millennium of faith, and for his extraordinary witness of holiness.”
In what was again a sign that he was eager to show the continuity between his papacy and that of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Francis recalled the words of his predecessor when the German pope beatified John Paul II in May 2011:
“(S)ociety, culture, political and economic systems he opened up to Christ, turning back with the strength of a titan – a strength which came to him from God – a tide which appeared irreversible.
“By his witness of faith, love and apostolic courage, accompanied by great human charisma, this exemplary son of Poland helped believers throughout the world not to be afraid to be called Christian, to belong to the Church, to speak of the Gospel. In a word: He helped us not to fear the truth, because truth is the guarantee of liberty.”
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