Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Canonization of two popes breaks record in crowd attendance. Two popes canonized and two living popes at elegant ritual.

Crowds begin trickling in soon after entrances open about 6:30 am.

Crowds swelled an hour later.

Rome---The Vatican has played host to many grand events over the past two decades, including the canonization of giants such as St. Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina and St. Faustina Kowalska of the "Divine Mercy" devotion, as well as the beatification of Pope John Paul II, Pope John XXIII and Mother Teresa, founder of the Missionary Sisters of Charity. Mammoth crowds also attended the funeral of Pope John Paul II in April 2005, led by world leaders.

But it's no exaggeration that perhaps the crowd-breaker is the canonization today, the Feast of the Divine Mercy, of two very popular pontiffs of the 20th century, Pope John XXIII and that rock star, Pope John Paul II. The crowds assembled in St. Peter's Square this morning were already so huge that people had to spill out into the long stretch of avenue called Via Conciliazione that runs perpendicular to St. Peters all the way to the Tiber River at the other end. Crowd estimate is about 5 million.


I'll do an analysis, based on research I've conducted, of the role of these two new saints in the life and history of the Church; but given the pace of travel and the tiring run-up to this morning's historic canonization, I'd need a little more time to put together a more thorough and thoughtful blog---including how the new saints responded to the challenges of their eras and how, even though they began their respective reign over two decades apart, with two other popes in between, their lives actually intersected in many ways.

For instance, Karol Wojtyla, later to be Pope John Paul II, was perhaps the youngest auxiliary bishop (of Krakow, Poland at 39) when Pope John XXIII decided, on promptings of the Holy Spirit, to convene the Second Vatican Council from 1962-1965. Bishop Wojtyla participated in that Council and made a significant contribution to the drafting of the Constitution, known as Gaudium et Spes.  It was Pope John Paul II who beatified John XXIII on Sept. 3, 2000.  

I shall also dwell on reasons why the distinguished son of Poland is now referred to as Pope John Paul the Great, in the league of a few pontiffs in history who merited that tribute. 


For the moment, my heart is still full of the beautiful canonization rites, and I'm sure I'm not the only one---emotions really ran high this morniing.

The rites began with a call to the Church's greatest saints over the ages, formally called the "Litany of Supplication''---beginning with Mary the Mother of God and St. Michael the Archangel---to intercede for the new candidates. Pope Francis then accepted the plea of Angelo Cardinal Amato, Prefect for the Congregation of the Cause of Saints, in three separate petitions, for the pontiff to accept the enrollment of JPII and John XXIII in the roster of saints. In turn Francis, invoking the Holy Spirit and acknowledging consultation with "many of our brother bishops," declared and defined them as Saints and that they are to be venerated as such by the Whole Church."  

The canonization rites were elegant, in keeping with highest Church tradition (what higher endeavor than to immortalize two mortals by raising them to the altar). Pope Francis is not the theater thespian that John Paul II was in his youth and he lacks the magnetism and flair for drama of the Polish pope; but the rites for sainthood in the 2000-year old institution that Francis intoned remained gripping as ever.

The mammoth crowds welcomed the frail-looking Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI with hearty applause, obviously having missed him, and Pope Francis gave him a warm embrace. Benedict could not have missed those rites, for when Pope JPII was already quite ill, it was he, then Cardinal Ratzinger, Dean of the College of Cardinals, who virtually ran the affairs of the Vatican; then, as successor Pope he beatified John Paul on May 1, 2011.  

Intersecting of lives once again in a story of continuity of the Papacy through the ages.


Security was understandably super-tight. To make sure I could get in, I woke up at 4:30 am. to be at one of the entrances by just past 5 am. Most of the crowds, as I narrated earlier in FB, had camped out all around the Vatican side-streets in cold spring weather last night, so that while waiting for this morning's 10 am. ceremonies, many rolled out sleeping bags and tried to sleep off fatigue. Some areas looked like veritable evacuation sites.  The Roman spring brought darkened skies and eventually a slight drizzle, and among the gigantic columns where I managed to grab space, the winds hissed bitingly, something I was not prepared for.  

The Poles, estimated about a million strong, stole the show with their vigorous hurrahs and brandishing their red and white banners. One banner read, "Thank you, John Paul." Other nationalities also bore their banners proudly, but disappointingly Filipino groups from home and overseas forgot this detail.  


In the past two days I had been posting entries in my FaceBook Page on happenings here in Rome as a run-up to the canonization rites, but I realize that not all my blog readers are FB active. So, for local color, while I take a little time to assemble my write-ups about our two newest saints, allow me to reprint these FB posts for my blog readers, even though they are now history: 

Thursday afternoon, April 24, 2014:

By the grace of God I got to Rome Thursday afternoon, terribly excited to witness an unforgettable, historic first in the 2000-year history of the Church this coming Sunday, April 27, 2014---the canonization of two Popes in a morning mass-ceremony to be officiated by two living Popes: Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. As you can see from this photo I took this morning, after hearing mass at the altar housing the body of Blessed Pope John Paul, and a visit to the tomb of Blessed Pope John XXIII, the Vatican grounds are all set for Sunday's mammoth gathering of peoples from all over the world.

Elegant portraits of the two Popes were displayed at the facade of St. Peter's Basilica this morning and crewmen have installed giant TV screens in various places in the Square, to enable the world to witness the historic rites on Sunday. Rome is exploding with people from all over the world, with delegations roaming around proudly displaying banners. There's talk that the immense St. Peter's Square would be deluged with five million devotees of the two Popes, but it's beginning to look like seven million, what with the Poles arriving in every conceivable means of transport! There's a big prayer vigil-gathering scheduled tomorrow afternoon at the Square and from random interviews I held, most folks will already encamp there to get vantage places for Sunday's rites. Yes, rows and rows of portalets are already in place.

Saturday morning, April 26, 2014:

This morning I walked to St. Peter's Basilica to hear an early mass and I was amazed to find long queues of people already lining up before the numerous X-ray machines, in order to get inside the Basilica. It would be their last chance to get in as I imagine that tomorrow, the grand day, the Basilica would be closed prior to the canonization ceremonies at 10 am.

People came in groups big and small and from all corners of the earth---a babel of tongues and all hues of skin. Among them: Ukranian sisters in black habits with yellow distinguishing scarves; 5000-strong Lebanese folks (one of whom boasted to me that her country already has four saints and two blesseds in the pipeline); big groups from Indonesia that first journeyed to Fatima before Rome, and of course so many Pinoy groups (a 44-strong group under Fr. Joey Faller from Lucban flew into Rome's Fuimicino Airport and headed straight to Padre Pio's Shrine in San Giovanni Rotondo, a good six-hour journey, before Rome), and Africans in brilliant outfits matching the spring sun. And of course, the Poles came in full force---I chatted with two nuns from Krakow, Poland, where JPII had been Archbishop for a long time, battling the Communist regime in his country, and I sensed right away their great affection for him. 

The mammoth assemblage of peoples from all over the world, brandishing their individual country's flag, is stirring testimony of the universality of the Church under God and the Pope. I have witnessed a number of huge gatherings in the Vatican over the decades, but tomorrow's canonizations will dwarf every event in the past---because of the immense popularity of the two spiritual rock stars---specially John Paul II who reigned for 28 years.

This morning a lot of youngsters already carried their back packs with sleeping bags or styrofoam mats, obviously ready to claim their precious square foot of space at St. Peter's Square this early. Tonight there will be prayer vigils at St. Peter's Square and other churches, and Pope Francis will be serenaded by youth groups.

This city seems prepared to handle the mammoth crowds. The Italian and city governments have set up emergency medical tents equipped with ambulances in a number of street corners around the Vatican. In addition, the Sovereign Order of Malta, which dates to medieval times, has also set up its medical teams with personnel in flaming red jump-suits. Malta counts with some prominent Filipino ladies as members, e.g., Ambassador to Rome and Malta Mercy Tuason, Malta Ambassador to PH Ody Gregorio-Arroyo and Cherrie Pie Lazatin.

All over Rome there's an air of festivity with pilgrims dining al fresco in various piazzas and alley streets in the crisp spring air and troubadours serenading them for some euro change. Here and there youngsters would suddenly burst out into loud cheerings or in native songs and dances. The whole world is rejoicing at the raising to the altar of these two great popes.

I think tomorrow's ceremonies will be frightfully emotional, and I'm trying to be as understated as I can in saying this.

Saturday evening, April 26, 2014:

Tonight's scene in the environs of the Vatican will rank among the "most unforgettable" even in this jaded journalist's memory. Earlier today I wrote about  hordes of people descending on St. Peter's Square in Rome, armed with  back-packs and sleeping mats, ready to camp out in the cavernous Square. But the weather and security concerns changed all that. Later in the afternoon it began to drizzle but folks came prepared with their plastic ponchos and umbrellas. However, still later came the order to vacate the premises, doubtless for security reasons. 

The various groups from all over the world, many of them from Poland and John Paul II's compatriots, began marching out as police began setting up their barricades around St. Peter's to regulate crowd movement for tomorrow's big event. The pilgrims have spilled out into the side streets and alleys around the Vatican, where they are camped out for the night in the very cold Roman spring weather.

I visited one such site not too far from my pension tonight, and it looked like one of those huge war refugee camps one sees in movies, or back home after a storm. But far from exuding misery, the pilgrims from around the world were happy singing folk or religious songs and strumming guitars (among the groups notably were sisters from the Rome-based Order of St. Camillus which runs a medical mission in PH), even as some families huddled together to try to sleep amid the noise. Deprived of the comforts of a warm hotel and forced to use the smelly portalets to relieve themselves, it's truly a great sacrifice for the pilgrims. Tomorrow they will all march back to the Square at 5 am.

What spirit indeed and what love for the two Saints and the Lord! I will never ever be able to forget this scene tonight.

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