The day of the four Popes

Think Christianity is over? To describe central Rome as full would be understating the case: St. Peter’s Square can hold about 250,000, but there were at least another half million swarming in the neighbouring streets and piazzas

Quite a setting
Tim Hedges
On 28 April 2014 13:07

A busy weekend in Italy. Friday was the Liberation Day holiday, celebrating Italy’s freedom from the Nazis in 1945. It is a fairly joyous event, with a few speeches in the piazza and happy comments from politicians. Most people see it as not just something in the War, but in more general terms such as freedom from repression, freedom from authoritarianism.

There is, however, a sad background for a country which changed sides in the war: there is no celebration for those who died perceiving it their duty to fight where their leadership told them to. And yet there were many.

On Sunday it was what the Italian papers like to call ‘the day of the four popes’, where two living popes canonised, that is to say recognised the sanctity of, two of their predecessors, John XXIII and John Paul II.

To describe central Rome as full would be understating the case: St. Peter’s Square can hold about 250,000, but there were at least another half million swarming in the neighbouring streets and piazzas, where the authorities had laid on massive TV screens.

These were pilgrims, as have flocked to this place for two thousand years and the surprising thing was how young they looked. At night they had held the vigil, praying and singing, ready to get to their places as early as possible on Sunday morning. They had come on hundreds of charter flights, by boat to Civitavecchia, on crowded trains. 1,700 buses came from Poland.

The crowd numbers were a record, but so was the number of policemen (more than 10,000 deployed), the fact that frogmen searched the bed of the Tiber (for what?) and for the first time the city had a mobile phone app which told you where the crowds were worst. It was a day for records.

Scores of heads of State turned up and the mayor of Rome, Ignazio Marino, arrived on his bicycle, was given a lift in the new cheaper popemobile by Francis in his tour of the faithful after the ceremony, then sped off home again by bike. Marino, responsible for the effects of the incursion of nearly a million people into the city, had had a good day, and the pope knew it.

With crowds equivalent to more than a dozen Premier League football matches, there was no violence and no one was drunk. The temporary hospital shelters had a little business, mainly people fainting; no one was hurt.

The weather was not kind, and the auguries in general were far from favourable. In Cevo, wheelchair bound Marco Gusmini was killed when a massive crucifix dedicated to John Paul II fell on him. Ironically the 21 year old lived on John XXIII street.

The other record of course was that there were two popes presiding over the ceremony. Ratzinger had brought forward the timetable for the canonisation of his predecessor John Paul II (normally they don’t even start their investigations until the subject has been dead five years). And it was Pope Francis who brought forward the canonisation of John XXIII, forgiving him one miracle (out of the usual two required) given that he established the Second Vatican Council in 1962.

The mass was held outside, the Eucharist served by 400 priests & 300 deacons. And at the end the crowds quietly dispersed, leaving St. Peter’s Square an empty desert, except for the 2,500 volunteers who picked up the rubbish.

It was Francis who decreed they should both be canonised on the same day, John XXIII the doctrinal liberal, whose Council liberalised so much of the Church’s teaching and liturgy, and John Paul II, the doctrinal conservative, who many think rowed back on much of Vatican II.

There had been some mumbling in the press about John Paul covering up child abuse cases in the priesthood, but it was just that, mumbling. You only had to ask one of the happy young Poles who had done 800 miles on a bus for this moment whether he was a saint or not.

Oddly enough what the two popes have in common is that they are favourites of Judaism. John, when he was Apostolic Visitor to Bulgaria at the outset of World War II, saved thousands of Jews from the death camps through his interventions. As pope he began the process to end traditional Christian anti-semitism.

John Paul was the first pope to establish formal diplomatic relations with Israel, which had not been possible before, and visited Jerusalem, where he prayed at the Western Wall.

Had Francis brought the two canonisations together for balance, the conservative balancing out the liberal? It is possible, but not I think, merely to please everyone. It's more that he has no time for the factions and politicking in the Vatican or outside it. I think rather he wanted to avoid being cast in one mould or the other and to show that these things are not important.

‘The good Pope’ and the rockstar pope are saints, and the faithful are happy.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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