As Pope John Paul II passed through Rome one day in 1988, greeting people as he went, a Polish teenager managed to thrust her hand through the cheering crowd pressed against the barricades. Improbably — unforgettably — the pontiff shook it.
“I will never forget the lightness of his hand,” said Joanna Bereaud, now a 42-year-old music therapist who lives in Swampscott.
A quarter-century earlier, Pope John XXIII had a spot alongside President Kennedy in Mary Jane England’s gallery of heroes. The future doctor and Regis College president, then in her early 20s, saw Pope John as a reformer who breathed new life into a stagnant church.
“John said, ‘Enough already, open the windows, it’s time to modernize, to move forward, and to take responsibility for service to people,’ ” England said.
The dual canonizations Sunday of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII in Rome are seen by church observers as a strategic move by Pope Francis, an attempt to reconcile the church’s liberal and conservative wings.
For many Boston-area Catholics, however, what makes these canonizations so special is that the lives of the church’s two newest saints intersected with their own. Each was a familiar figure on the nightly news, riding in cars, flying in airplanes, speaking to issues of the day. Some locals even met them personally.
So across New England, many faithful plan Sunday morning to tune into the ceremonies in Rome and pray in churches as they mark an event that feels both personal and universal.
“A person who was canonized, I touched in my life,” Bereaud marveled. “This is not somebody from the 16th century. It’s someone we knew. It’s a sign the saints are living among us. . . . And there is also the hope that any one of us can become a saint.”
Designating well-known contemporary figures as saints comes with risks. For example, many advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse oppose John Paul’s canonization, saying he failed to adequately confront the abuse crisis. And some tie John XXIII’s push for modernization to the steep decline in the ranks of priests and Mass attendance.
But Mark Lippolt, a parishioner at St. Cecilia Parish in the Back Bay, said the church needs contemporary saints who are more relevant to churchgoers, particularly young people.
“It makes the struggles they had more something that we can relate to, as opposed to someone who lived in 300 AD and wore sandals and a cloak,” he said.
Many locals still remember the rainy, windy day in October 1979 when John Paul II visited Boston. Nearly 2 million people came out to see his motorcade fly through the city’s neighborhoods and to watch him celebrate Mass on Boston Common.
“You could actually feel the ground shaking,” said Rik Tinory, a record producer in Cohasset who produced an album of that service.
The connection is even more visceral for parishioners in local Polish Catholic churches, which are holding elaborate celebrations of the canonization this weekend. Many congregants remember gathering around neighbors’ television sets in Poland back in October 1978 when Karol Jozef Wojtyla, the archbishop of Krakow, became the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.
‘It makes the struggles they had more something that we can relate to, as opposed to someone who lived in 300 AD and wore sandals and a cloak.’Mark Lippolt, parishioner at St. Cecilia Parish in the Back Bay
“We cried, we prayed,” said Dorota Kapcia, a child in Poland then, who now lives in Quincy and teaches at the Polish language school, named for John Paul, at Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish in South Boston. “We were so happy.”
Lila and Andrzej Pronczuk, who now live in Milton, were among the throngs gathered along the road from the Warsaw airport to the city center when John Paul made his first papal visit to Poland in June 1979. His homily in Warsaw’s Victory Square galvanized those living under the country’s oppressive communist regime.
“Let your spirit descend,” he said. “And renew the face of the Earth, the face of this land.”
Government-controlled television did not show the sea of people that had turned out that day, Lila Pronczuk said. But when those who went “saw how many of us were there, that’s when Solidarity grew,” she said, referring to the workers’ movement that brought about the fall of communism in Poland, a first step toward the demise of the Soviet Union.
Andrzej Pronczuk later became a member of Solidarity; today, he is a researcher at Brandeis University and president of the Polish Cultural Foundation. An exhibit of photographs of John Paul he created, which has been shown more than 40 times in 10 states, is on display this weekend at Our Lady of Czestochowa parish hall. The parish’s two-day celebration also includes a theater performance, a choir concert, and a special Mass. Many parishioners said they planned to wake up to watch the canonization broadcast live at 3 a.m. Sunday.
As volunteers helped install the exhibit at the parish hall last week, they talked about the photographs -- of John Paul kissing the tarmac at the Warsaw airport, sporting traditional tribal clothing in Africa, patting a kangaroo on the head in Australia -- as though they were from a family album.
“It’s very emotional,” Lila Pronczuk said, her eyes filling with tears. “He knew us in spirit and body and soul and everything -- he was part of us, and we were part of him. It was almost like a complete understanding, without words.”
Memories of John Paul, whose reign lasted from 1978 to 2005, remain fresh, vivid. But John XXIII is a more distant figure for many Catholics; his brief five-year reign ended a half-century ago. When contemporary Catholics talk about John XXIII, they are often speaking as much about a set of ideas as they are about the man.
But those ideas were powerful ones that fundamentally altered Roman Catholicism -- and they remain sources of controversy and inspiration today.
John XXIII, who was elected at age 76, was supposed to be a transitional pontiff, said the Rev. James T. Bretzke, a Jesuit priest and moral theologian at Boston College. But he surprised the world by calling Vatican II, blindsiding the curia -- the Vatican bureaucracy -- in seeking a more modern church.
“John XXIII was surprising on so many levels,” Bretzke said. “He was surprising in that he had as much energy as he did, and in that he was as frank and approachable as he was.”
Many older Catholics retain a visceral sense of how dramatically the church changed at its most basic level -- the Mass -- as a result of Vatican II’s liturgical reforms. English replaced Latin; laity could read from Scripture; priests faced the congregation instead of the altar.
“When John XXIII turned the altar around and had the priest face us, and speak in whatever the native language was, I was like, man, that really means something,” said Karen Cornacchia, 68, a parishioner at Immaculate Conception in Everett.
“He made [the church] more human,” she said. “He brought the priests down off the altar and brought [the Mass] to us. And that set up a whole new aspect for me of what my religion could be.”
Vatican II also called for new dialogue with Protestants and with other faiths. And the council challenged religious orders to become more responsive to the world outside cloistered walls.
The canonization of John XXIII is “very heartening” for religious sisters in the US, said Sister Mary Ann Hinsdale, a theologian at Boston College. American sisters were sternly reprimanded by the Vatican in 2012 -- before the election of Pope Francis -- for being too focused on matters of social justice and insufficiently active in opposing abortion, gay marriage, and birth control.
“I can’t think of anybody more than women religious who really embraced what Vatican II was all about,” Hinsdale said. “They in a way were being punished for doing exactly what the council said.”
Some Catholics who feel that the work of modernizing the church was left unfinished, and that some of its reforms atrophied during the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, are now looking to Francis as John XXIII’s spiritual successor. They see in him the same kindly manner, concern for the poor, and desire to see the church find new ways to connect with the modern world.
Larry McMenamy, who lives in the Back Bay, was in high school during the Second Vatican Council and valued the changes it brought.
“The new pope, hopefully, will continue in that vein,” McMenamy, 68, said. “Let’s not judge people who are gay. Let’s try to open up to include more people in the Church.”
He said he hopes Francis will lead the church hierarchy to a greater acceptance of life as it is really lived.
“They’re living in an ivory tower if they think most Catholics in the world aren’t using birth control,” McMenamy said.
Martin Pino, who lives in the South End, said he would probably get up early to watch the canonization ceremony, which Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, plans to attend.
He said both popes were “saints who walked among us.”
“Each did his own thing,” he said. “Each has his own talents and brings to it his own vision.”
To speed John XXIII’s canonization, Francis made an exception from the rule requiring the certification of two miracles for a candidate for sainthood. The Vatican has acknowledged only one miracle in John XXIII’s case.
“I like to think the miracle John XXIII performed is the election of Pope Francis,” Hinsdale said. “Somehow, the spirit he unleashed in the Second Vatican Council has come to fruition in this pope.”Lisa Wangsness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.