Greetings from Rome, where pilgrims are converging from all over, but especially Poland, for Sunday's canonization of the late popes John Paul II and John XXIII. Among those due in Saturday are about 80 from Pittsburgh traveling with Bishop David Zubik as part of a weeklong pilgrimage to Roman holy sites.
St. Peter's Square and thereabouts were packed on Friday, and at least a million are expected Sunday for the two popes who shook 20th century church history in ways that sometimes contrasted with, sometimes complemented each other. John called the reformist Second Vatican Council, and John Paul, well, what didn't he do?
One Polish TV newsman I spoke to agreed that this may be the last big gathering on behalf of John Paul, who drew millions in so many papal events around the world. He played such a defining role in Polish history in particularly, as spiritual leader of its non-violent revolution to overthrow communism, that people speak of an entire generation that came of age then as the John Paul generation. (They say the same of younger American priests and other Catholics who embraced his approach to the faith, traditionalist in doctrine and innovative in evangelistic technique.)
The souvenir stands would seem to bear out the impression that this event is drawing more for John Paul than John. One can hear Polish in the streets everywhere, and the commemorative prayer cards, plates and other souvenirs are running heavily in favor of John Paul in terms of quantity, with second place (for the moment) going to images of a beaming Pope Francis. One can find photos of the smiling, rotund John XXIII, but they're not as numerous.
Of course, there could be a few reasons for this. John, as beloved as he was, reigned for a relatively short five years and died more than half a century ago, so those with living memories of him are relatively fewer. And since his is a home crowd (Italy), the devotees he does have wouldn't have to travel as far nor would they stand out as much. Still, the lingering affection for John Paul nine years after his death is striking. People from the United States, Slovakia, Paraguay and elsewhere were displaying honors for John Paul, not just fellow Poles. One group bore the name, "Lebanon Team JP2."
The square is being set up with multi-level risers for TV cameras, and the Vatican Museum has an impressive collection of large photos from the lives of the two popes -- with images of John XXIII from Vatican II and John Paul sometimes amid a sea of devotees, sometimes in solitary poses, such as the Western Wall in Jerusalem. It's hard to take time away from the Sistine Chapel and other masterworks to view a temporary exhibit, but it's worth taking time for both.
(Top image: The tapestries showing late Pope John Paul II, left, and Pope John XXIII hang from the facade of St. Peter's Basilica as faithful and pilgrims crowd St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Friday, April 25, 2014. Hundred thousands of pilgrims and faithful are expected to reach Rome to attend the scheduled April 27 ceremony at the Vatican in which Pope Francis will elevate in a solemn ceremony John XXIII and John Paul II to sainthood. Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press)