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VATICAN CITY — Call it the day of four popes.
When John Paul II first rose to the papacy in October, 1978, people called it the “year of three popes,” as two predecessor popes had died in the previous couple of months.
Today is shaping up to be the day of four popes — with current Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI canonizing John Paul II and a predecessor, John XXIII.
And despite Francis’ current popularity and the affection many have felt for John XXIII’s gentle yet revolutionary spirit from more than half a century ago, there’s no question who the star of this event is: John Paul II.
The man who drew millions around the world is drawing them yet again, nine years after his death in what could be the last major international gathering in his honor.
One could hear as much Polish as Italian in St. Peter’s Square on Saturday as throngs of pilgrims from the late John Paul’s native land converged on the square. So did pilgrims of many other lands, particularly with Slavic roots, but also from the United States and Latin America, singing in numerous languages and joining in dancing, hand-clapping spontaneous worship. All credited John Paul with firing their faith, and in some cases their countries’ national aspirations as well.
Such is the legacy of John Paul, who died in April, 2005, after a papacy of more than a quarter-century. He is widely credited with being the spiritual catalyst for the nonviolent revolution that overthrew communist regimes in his native Poland and elsewhere in the Soviet bloc, while also reasserting traditional Catholic dogma and infusing youth in particular with spiritual fervor.
“For me, he is like a father ... he always told us to follow Christ. He told us not to be afraid, to be proud to be Catholic,” said Kinga Laszcztowska, part of a group of Polish pilgrims that traveled with virtually a small orchestra in tow, singing upbeat hymns in the square. They are part of a movement called Lednica 2000, a major gathering of Polish youth each year at a lake site considered a cradle of Polish Christianity.
Ms. Laszcztowska, 26, still recalls John Paul’s papacy and his visits to Lednica and elsewhere in Poland. She acknowledges that a new generation of Poles are now growing up with no direct memory of him.
“It’s hard to say” if they will connect with John Paul and his teachings, she said. At Lednica, “we really [have] to teach and tell young people” about John Paul and his teachings, she said. “We try to keep his memory alive.”
While John Paul had legions of critics in and out of the church, lamenting his solidifying of Vatican and clerical authority, and responding too late to cases of sexual abuse and cover-up that had included some clerics he had openly supported, there was virtually no sign of dissent Saturday within the Vatican’s precincts.
At the souvenir shops and street displays in and around the Vatican, John Paul, then Francis, hold the most prominent spots in displays of posters, calendars, even bobbleheads. Even at the official Vatican Museum, which is hosting a temporary display of large photos of John and John Paul, giving them relatively equal billing, there’s a solitary statue of John Paul out front, bearing a palm leaf.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Peter Smith is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1416 or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith