Catholics across the region rejoiced Sunday as two popes who reigned in recent decades joined the church’s canon of saints.
Pope Francis, with assistance from his predecessor, retired Pope Benedict XVI, presided over Sunday’s canonization in Rome’s St. Peter’s Square of John XXIII and John Paul II before a crowd estimated at more than 1 million.
Many in Boston’s Polish-American community saw special significance in the sainthood of John Paul II, so far the church’s only Polish pope.
At Our Lady of Czestochowa Church in South Boston’s Polish Triangle section, clergy and parishioners held a two-day celebration that culminated midday Sunday with a special Polish-language Mass, a viewing of the recorded canonization ceremony, and a concert.
During the 9:30 a.m. Mass, conducted primarily in English, the Rev. Boguslaw Czerniakowski remembered John Paul II in his homily. Czerniakowski spoke of the future pope’s resilience as he faced the death of his mother and the hard labor and deprivations of World War II.
Through every hardship, Czerniakowski said, “he always felt the voice of God calling him.”
As pope, he said, John Paul II traveled to about 130 countries and wanted always to be among the people and to see the places where they made their lives.
“Many of us remember him,” Czerniakowski said. “Some of us had the chance to even meet him in person, to touch him.”
Standing outside the church in the gray damp of Sunday morning, Marek Lesniewski-Laas, 63, an honorary consul for Poland, recalled similar weather during John Paul II’s October 1979 visit to Boston, where he celebrated Mass on Boston Common.
“I remember on the Common he said, ‘America the beautiful — even if it’s raining,’ and today is certainly reminiscent of that,” he said.
He recalled that even in a crowd estimated at 400,000 that day, John Paul II left a personal mark.
“The strongest impression that I had was of his humanity, the warmth of his personality, the charisma he had,” said Lesniewski-Laas, of Cohasset. “It was very evident that new things would be happening both in Catholicism as a religion and in the rest of the world.”
He said John Paul II was not only a religious leader, but was also important in helping bring about the fall of communism in Poland and eventually throughout the Soviet Union and its other satellite countries.
“We have freedom . . . thanks to him,” he said. “In addition to the religious role he played, he had a profound influence on the history of Central Europe. Poles everywhere will be grateful to him forever.”
At the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End, the mother church of the Archdiocese of Boston, clergy acknowledged the newly canonized saints during a Mass celebrating Divine Mercy Sunday, a designation for the Sunday after Easter that John Paul II added to the church calendar to encourage devotion to the mercy of Christ.
After the Mass, parishioner John Tsui, 77, recalled learning Latin phrases from the local parish priest as a young boy in Hong Kong.
“I had been an altar boy when I was young,” he said. “If you wanted to be an altar boy, you had to learn some.”
Later, the Second Vatican Council convened by John XXIII modernized many aspects of the church, including the introduction of Masses in local languages instead of Latin.
Tsui, of the South End, declared that change a positive step.
“It’s good — everybody can understand,” he said. “Some of the Mass in Latin, you don’t know what the priest is doing.”
Though widely admired, both newly canonized saints have been trailed by controversy. Some believe John XXIII’s efforts to modernize the church helped cause declines in attendance at Masses and in the number of men entering the priesthood.
Many advocates for victims of priest sexual abuse oppose the canonization of John Paul II because they believe he failed to respond forcefully to allegations of misconduct.
No criticism of the Polish pope was heard Sunday at Our Lady of Czestochowa, where people packed every pew for the celebratory Mass and spilled out to line the walls and cluster at the rear of the church.
Celina Zabilski, who immigrated to the United States in 1981, said she could barely express her joy.
“He’s everything for us,” said Zabilski, 52. “He’s like a father; he’s like a priest. . . . He changed the world. I’m ready to cry when I see this.”
Some came to the church clad in traditional Polish costumes, and members of the Polish Army Veterans Association of America Post 37 donned dress uniforms patterned after those worn in World War I by the so-called Blue Army, a Polish volunteer contingent.
Alfred Sosnowski, 90, proudly wore his dress blues as he remembered his childhood in a small Polish town, his military service in World War II, and 25 years as commander of the veterans association post.
His son Richard, 66, recalled John Paul II’s 1979 visit to Boston, explaining that for the Polish-American community, there was “great pride and an honor that he came to visit us here.”
Richard said he knew several people who stayed up all night to watch the ceremony live on television.
“Religion is very deep with Polish people, especially the older generation, and also there’s patriotism,” he said, “because they feel that John Paul II was instrumental in the dissolution of the communist system in Eastern Europe.”
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