VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis made history on Sunday, elevating to sainthood John XXIII and John Paul II, two of his most famous papal predecessors, in a ceremony bearing themes of hope and reconciliation for the world’s 1 billion Roman Catholics.
With crowds filling St. Peter’s Square and spilling out across Rome, Francis presided over an elaborate Mass beneath drizzly skies, canonizing the two towering figures of 20th-century Catholicism, men who hold very different legacies in the church.
Francis, who made the decision to hold the joint canonization, portrayed the two former popes as “men of courage” who shared a place in history.
“They were priests, bishops, and popes of the 20th century,” he said in his homily. “They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them, God was more powerful; faith was more powerful.”
Never before had two popes been canonized at the same time, and the pairing attracted large, joyous crowds tramping through Rome, with many people waving flags or banners. Francis declared the two men saints shortly after the Mass began, a pronouncement greeted with rising applause from the square and followed by the presentation of relics linked to the two new saints.
Notable among the cardinals and political leaders seated near the outdoor altar was Benedict XVI, the former pope who has remained largely out of the public eye since his historic resignation last year. His decision to step down led to the papal election of Francis.
Benedict joined Francis in celebration of the Mass, the first time a reigning and retired pope have officiated together at a Mass in public in the 2,000-year history of the church.
Many people also came from John Paul’s native Poland, where he is a hero for his fight against communism.
Vatican officials said 1,700 buses, 58 charter flights, and five special trains were scheduled to travel from Poland, but many others made their own travel arrangements. Polish church groups, scouts, seminarians, and factory workers rented buses for the more than 930-mile drive.
“It’s a very special day for every Pole, in particular for young people for whom John Paul II meant a new history, for our country and for Europe, as well,” said Lucasz Novak, 38, who came from northeastern Poland on a seven-day tour of holy sites in Italy.
“For Poland, it’s a holy moment,” he said from St. Peter’s Square, as he used his smartphone to listen to a live broadcast of the celebration on Vatican Radio’s Polish channel. “For Catholics all over the world, it’s a holy moment. We could not not be here.”
For Francis, who has emerged as a major global figure after only a year as pope, the canonization ceremony offered a stage to underscore his broad agenda of trying to bring together different Catholic factions as he prepares for two major meetings in which prelates are expected to address some of the most contentious social issues facing the church.
In the days before the ceremony, however, Vatican officials had sought to dispel the political subtext of the event — that the two former popes are icons to different constituencies within the church, and that by canonizing them together, Francis was making a political statement as well as a religious one.
John XXIII is a hero to many liberal Catholics for his Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s, which sought to open the church to the modern era. John Paul II is a hero to many conservative Catholics — not only for his anticommunist heroism and personal charisma, but also because of his resistance to liberalizing elements of the church.
By pairing their canonizations, many analysts said, Francis sought to deemphasize their differences in the service of trying to reconcile divisions within the church and finding consensus as he prepared for the meetings, known as synods, centered on the theme of family.
In his homily, Francis described John XXIII as the pope of “exquisite openness,” while he called John Paul II “the pope of the family.”
He said that both themes were especially relevant as the church had embarked on a “two-year journey toward the synod.”
The crowds began arriving in the early morning darkness, hours before the ceremony, with thousands upon thousands of footsteps padding against the Roman cobblestones while much of the city still slept.
Some pilgrims had spent the night sleeping on sidewalks beside the Tiber River, others on the floors of local convents. With sunrise, the crowds poured into the unreserved portions of St. Peter’s Square, as well as along Via della Conciliazione, the broad boulevard leading from the Tiber to the Vatican.
The spectacle was beamed across the world: More than 5,000 priests and over 1,000 bishops, leaders and other dignitaries from more than 90 countries joined the throng of Catholics.
Mary Ellen Watson, 54, who came from Kansas, said she was especially overwhelmed at the beginning of the service, when Francis gently embraced Benedict, who is now known as pope emeritus. “This is a moment in the history of the church that has never happened and won’t probably happen again — with four popes,” she said.
Not far away, Juana Pineda, 73, who had traveled from Chile, stood in line for more than 15 hours so that she could get a position just outside the square, under the famous colonnade built centuries ago by Bernini. “I am not tired,” she said. “I am simply happy.’’
Tens of thousands of faithful across Latin America celebrated the canonizations. Starting Saturday night, nearly 20,000 Costa Ricans crowded into the capital of San Jose’s national stadium for a vigil and to watch the ceremony broadcast from the Vatican.
During his final visit to Mexico in 2002, John Paul canonized Juan Diego as the first indigenous saint in the Americas. The Virgin of Guadalupe is said to have appeared to Juan Diego in 1531 on a hill where an Aztec goddess was worshiped.
A small parish church in Bahia, Brazil, was renamed in his honor: Our Lady of Alagados and St. John Paul II.