ROME — A corner of a big Rome piazza, known for hosting free rock concerts and political rallies, will be renamed after late pontiff John Paul II, with Pope Francis coming to the unveiling ceremony today.
While Francis instantly proved to be a crowd pleaser — about 100,000 people turned out in St. Peter's Square today and a nearby street for his noon blessing — the mention of the widely beloved John Paul still prompts affectionate cheers. When Francis noted that John Paul “closed his eyes to this world” exactly eight years ago this month, in 2005, the new pope drew so much applause, he couldn't finish his sentence as he spoke from the papal studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square.
Francis invited people to join him later in Rome's main church, St. John in Lateran Basilica. Pontiffs are also the bishop of Rome, and a traditional installation ceremony at the basilica formally recognizes that Francis is Rome's bishop as well as the leader of the worldwide Roman Catholic church.
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Before entering the basilica, Francis was scheduled to attend the unveiling of a plaque on a corner of the square near the church, naming that part of the piazza after John Paul. The late pontiff enthusiastically embraced his role as Rome's bishop, visiting hundreds of city parishes on Sunday mornings.
Francis might be the pope who decides whether another miracle has been attributed to John Paul's intercession, which would enable the late, Polish-born pontiff to enjoy the church's highest honor, sainthood. The church process to certify a first miracle needed for John Paul's beatification went exceptionally fast. The six years it took from his death until Pope Benedict XVI beatified him in 2011 was the shortest time in modern history. Beatification is the last formal step before sainthood.
The vast St. John in Lateran piazza, which can hold hundreds of thousands of people, is a popular venue for free rock concerts on Labor Day, May 1, and a frequent rallying point for union leaders and politicians. Rome's city hall said the square was picked as an apt place to honor John Paul after consulting with an Italian cardinal who serves as the pope's vicar general for the Rome diocese.
Pope Francis seemed to be adding a new twist to the role of public squares in everyday life. At his Vatican appearance today, he encouraged faithful to “go into the piazzas and announce Christ our savior” to the people. “Bring the Good News with sweetness and respect,” he added. The “Good News” refers to the Gospels.
John Paul, then Benedict, and now Francis have all made shoring up flagging faith on the traditionally Christian European continent as well as in other affluent areas of the world a priority of their leadership. The Vatican is also keen on preserving Catholic loyalty in places like South America, where dynamic evangelical sects have been attracting baptized Catholics away from their faith, as well as encourage growing communities of Catholics in Africa and Asia.
The new pope is expected to lead Catholic youth in pep rallies this summer in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, during a pilgrimage that would take the world's first pope to be born in South America back to his home continent.
When Francis spoke of the installation ceremony Sunday evening, he urged the crowd to pray with him so that together, “bishop and people, walk in faith and charity.”