10:22AM BST 27 Apr 2014
Pope Francis has proclaimed two of his predecessors, Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, as saints of the Roman Catholic Church at a ceremony in St Peter’s Square.
The open-air event was watched by up to a million people at the Vatican and on giant screens positioned around Rome, while millions more watched on television around the world.
At the beginning of the canonisation ceremony, Pope Francis greeted and embraced Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, his predecessor, who has looked increasingly tired and frail since his resignation last year.
It is the first time in the history of the Catholic Church that two living Popes have presided over the canonisation of two of their predecessors.
“We declare and define as saints the blessed John XXIII and John Paul II,” Francis said in a Latin prayer from an altar in front of St Peter’s Basilica.
He was flanked by foreign dignitaries, various royals and hundreds of cardinals and bishops.
A bishop arrives for the canonisation ceremony in St. Peter’s Square (Reuters)
In what has been dubbed “the day of the four Popes”, the Vatican confirmed that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI – who last year became the first pontiff since the Middle Ages to resign – was to be in attendance at today’s event.
Thousands of pilgrims slept out in St Peter’s Square and surrounding streets overnight in order to reserve a prime spot for the ceremony, which was expected to last for about two hours.
Catholics from all over the world have gathered in Rome for the unprecedented double canonisation, with a huge contingent from Poland, the homeland of the John Paul II.
People gather ahead of a ceremony on Saint Peter’s Square (EPA)
Polish women in traditional national dress, boy scouts and girl guides and priests and nuns waved the red and white flag of Poland as they walked towards St Peter’s Basilica.
From an altar in front of the Basilica, Pope Francis will be flanked by scarlet-clad cardinals on one side and foreign dignitaries, including heads of state and royalty, on the other, when he leads the ceremony to canonise his two predecessors.
More than 10,000 members of the security forces have been deployed for the event, the biggest Vatican occasion since the funeral of John Paul II drew millions of people to Rome in 2005.
There has been a festival atmosphere in the city this weekend, with groups of priests banging drums and singing songs, special services held in more than a dozen churches and flags from across the world displayed by the faithful.
A group of priests from Chile carried two large cardboard cut-outs of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII, enabling people to take “selfies” of themselves with the soon-to-be made saints.
Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI arrives in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican (AP)
Pope Benedict, who lives in a former convent in the grounds of the Vatican, will be among 150 cardinals and 700 bishops who will “concelebrate” with Pope Francis and take part in the canonisation ceremony.
“We will all be happy to have his presence” at the ceremony, Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said.
It is unprecedented for two living Popes to preside over the canonisation of two of their predecessors.
Bishops take their seats before the canonisation mass of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II at St Peter’s square (AFP/Getty Images)
During the ceremony, the head of the Vatican’s saint-making office, Cardinal Angelo Amato, was expected to ask Pope Francis three separate times to include John XXIII and John Paul II among the saints of the Roman Catholic Church.
The three repeated requests for canonisation “signify the importance of this celebration,” the Reverend Federico Lombardi said.
Pope Francis was then expected to say: “For the honour of the Blessed Trinity, the exaltation of the Catholic faith and the increase of the Christian life, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and our own, after due deliberation and frequent prayer for divine assistance, and having sought the counsel of many of our brother bishops, we declare and define Blessed John XXIII and John Paul II be saints and we enrol them among the saints, decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole church.”
A cardinal takes a picture as he arrives for the canonisation mass (AFP/Getty Images)
Relics of the two former Popes were then due to be held up – for John Paul II, a vial of his blood, and for John XXIII, a piece of skin taken from his body after it was exhumed for his beatification in 2000.
Among the dignitaries on the guest list were 24 heads of state and 10 heads of government, including the kings and queens of Spain and Belgium, and Lech Walesa, the founder of the Solidarity labour movement in Poland, which enjoyed staunch support from Pope John Paul II and helped bring down Communism.
(Source: The Telegraph)