VATICAN CITY -- Call it the day of three popes, maybe four.
When John Paul II first rose to the papacy in October 1978, people called it the "year of three popes," as two predecessor popes had died in the previous couple of months.
Today is shaping up to be the day of three popes -- with current Pope Francis canonizing John Paul II and a predecessor, John XXIII. (Or four, if Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a longtime confidant of John Paul, attends as well.)
Crowds gather in Rome for canonization
Huge crowds are gathering in Rome to watch when current Pope Francis will lead the canonization of John Paul II and a predecessor, John XXIII. (Video by Peter Smith; edited by Melissa Tkach; 4/26/2014)
And despite Pope Francis' current popularity and the affection many have felt for John XXIII's gentle yet revolutionary spirit from more than half a century ago, there's no question who the star of this event is: John Paul II.
The man who drew millions of Roman Caholics around the world is drawing them yet again, nine years after his death in what could be the last major international gathering in his honor.
One could hear as much Polish as Italian in St. Peter's Square on Saturday as throngs of pilgrims from John Paul's native land converged on the square. So did pilgrims of many other lands, particularly with Slavic roots, but also from Latin America and the United States, including from Pittsburgh, singing in numerous tongues and joining in dancing, hand-clapping spontaneous worship. All credited John Paul with firing their faith, and in some cases their countries' national aspirations as well.
Such is the legacy of John Paul, who died in April 2005 after a papacy of more than a quarter-century. He is widely credited with being the spiritual catalyst for the non-violent revolution that overthrew communist regimes in his native Poland and elsewhere in the Soviet bloc, while also reasserting traditional Catholic dogma and infusing youth in particular with spiritual fervor.
"For me, he is like a father ... he always told us to follow Christ. He told us not to be afraid, to be proud to be Catholic," said Kinga Laszcztowska, part of a group of Polish pilgrims that traveled with a virtual small orchestra in tow, singing upbeat hymns in the square. They are part of a movement called Lednica 2000, a major gathering of Polish youth each year at a lake site considered a cradle of Polish Christianity.
Ms. Laszcztowska, 26, still recalls John Paul's papacy and his visits to Lednica and elsewhere in Poland. She acknowledges that a new generation of Poles -- a land where he drew millions in his epic first visit in 1979 in what spiritually energized the Solidarity movement -- are now growing up with no direct memory of him.
"It's hard to say" if they will connect with John Paul and his teachings, she said. At Lednica, "we really [have] to teach and tell young people" about John Paul and his teachings, she said. "We try to keep his memory alive."
Mia Topic, 27, echoed the thought as she and a group of Croatian pilgrims sang on their way to the square. She still recalls attending a visit of John Paul to her country in 1998 as it emerged from years of warfare, and she wanted to be here to honor him.
"It was a special moment for me and my family," she said.
While John Paul had legions of critics in and out of the church, lamenting his solidifying of Vatican and clerical authority, and responding too late to cases of sexual abuse and cover-up that had included some clerics he had openly supported, there was virtually no sign of dissent Saturday within the Vatican's precincts.
At the souvenir shops and street displays in and around the Vatican, John Paul, then Francis, hold the most prominent spots in displays of posters, calendars, even bobbleheads. Even at the official Vatican Museum, which is hosting a temporary display of large photos of John and John Paul, giving them relatively equal billing, there's a solitary statue of John Paul out front, bearing a palm leaf.
Souvenir salesman Angelo Bricciola said that even for Italians who revere the legacy of John XXIII, the peasant Angelo Roncalli who rose to be a gentle yet canny diplomat and bishop before becoming known as the "good pope," the legacy is just that -- a piece of history.
It's a "new generation," he said. John was "papa good," he said, but of his grandfather 's generation. John Paul is still in living memory.
But others lauded John XXIII as well.
Maria Rumjana, who was here with a group from Bulgaria, said John is remembered as the "Bulgarian Roncalli" for his years as a Vatican diplomat in that land, bringing sacraments to the small and dispersed Catholic population, bringing aid to earthquake victims, and building bridges with the predominant Orthodox population there.
The Second Vatican Council, which John launched in 1962, a year before his death, produced sweeping changes in the church, calling on all Catholics to take part in various ministries and the quest for holiness, putting Masses into local languages rather than Latin, and opening ties with non-Catholics.
Johanna Jara of Santa Monica, Calif., who was carrying large flags of the United States and her mother's native Peru, said both popes were key to making the church what it is today.
"John XXIII brought a new outlook to the church," she said. And with his outreach to youth, John Paul "made it cool to be Catholic."
She volunteers with youth today because "I wanted to show the teens what I got out of him."
The canonizations also drew a contingent of about 90 people traveling with Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik.
Bishop Zubik, recalling the vast crowds who came for John Paul's funeral nine years ago and called for his immediate canonization, said, "What's going to happen tomorrow is a celebration of what the people already recognized."
The group arrived in Rome Saturday morning and went immediately to visit the catacombs and to say Mass at the historic Domine Quo Vadis chapel, named for a tradition that St. Peter, just before his martyrdom, had a vision of Jesus nearby.
"Just to have Mass any place in Rome is a blessing," Bishop Zubik said, adding that such devotions turn what otherwise would be a tourist trip into a pilgrimage.
Mary Lou McLaughlin of Pittsburgh was joining the pilgrimage just a few months after her husband passed away. The couple admired both popes and always planned to attend the canonization of either of them -- never imagining both would be sainted the same day.
She's attending with her sister.
"We're here for him," she said of her late husband, Aloysius.
Deacon Tom Schluep of the Pittsburgh diocese, who is attending seminary in Rome, said he has long prayed for John XXIII to be canonized, and he said the outpouring of responses to John Paul II's death helped prod him into considering the priesthood.
He said he's struck by "the impact that the personal holiness of these two men has had on the entire church, not just what they've done in office."
He said it should prod others today to aspire to holiness, and with the two late popes "as saints we can pray for their intercession now."
Peter Smith: email@example.com, 412-263-1416 or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.
First Published April 26, 2014 2:23 PM