Pope Francis declared his two predecessors John XXIII and John Paul II saints before some 800,000 people on Sunday, an unprecedented ceremony made even more historic by the presence in St. Peter's Square of emeritus Pope Benedict XVI.
Benedict's presence was a reflection of the balancing act that Francis envisioned when he decided to canonize John and John Paul together, showing the unity of the Catholic Church by honoring popes beloved to conservatives and progressives alike. Francis went over to greet Benedict twice during the service.
Francis took a deep breath and paused for a moment before reciting the saint-making formula in Latin at the start of the ceremony, as if moved by the history he was about to make in canonizing two popes at once.
"We declare and define Blessed John XXIII and John Paul II to be saints and we enroll them among the saints, decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole Church," Francis said in his formal proclamation in Latin.
Relics of each man — a container of blood from John Paul II and skin from John XXIII — were placed near the altar.
Francis praised both men for their work associated with the Second Vatican Council, also known as “Vatican II,” the groundbreaking meetings that brought the 2,000-year-old institution into modern times. John convened the council while John Paul helped ensure its more conservative implementation and interpretation.
John XXIII, who reigned from 1958 to 1963, lived through both world wars. John Paul II, the Pole who reigned for nearly 27 years, witnessed the devastation of his homeland in World War II and is credited by many with helping end the Cold War and bring down communism.
It was Benedict who put John Paul on the fast track for possible sainthood just weeks after he died in 2005, responding to the chants of "Santo Subito!" or "Sainthood Now!" that erupted during his funeral Mass. His canonization is now the fastest in modern times.
Francis then tweaked the Vatican's own saint-making rules, deciding that John could be made a saint without the necessary second miracle usually required for canonization.
The fact that the two being canonized are widely seen as representing contrasting faces of the Church has added to the significance of an event that Francis hopes will draw the world's 1.2 billion Catholics closer together.
The Vatican said more than 500,000 people filled the basilica area while another 300,000 watched the event on large television screens throughout Rome.
The overwhelming majority in the crowd were Poles who had travelled from their home country and immigrant communities as far as Chicago and Sydney to watch their most famous native son become a saint.
Hundreds of red and white Polish flags filled the square and the streets surrounding the Vatican, which were strewn with sleeping bags, backpacks and folding chairs.
"For years Pope John Paul II took the Church to the ends of the earth and today the ends of the earth have come back here," said Father Tom Rosica, head of Canada's Salt and Light Catholic television network.
Families and other pilgrims had waited for more than 12 hours along the main street leading to the Vatican before police opened up the square at 5:30 a.m.
Some people said they had managed to sleep on their feet because the crowd was so thick.
About 850 cardinals and bishops celebrated the Mass with the pope and 700 priests were on hand to distribute communion to the huge crowd.
Francis' own huge popularity has added extra appeal to the unprecedented ceremony to raise two former leaders of the church to sainthood on the same day. But while both were widely revered, there has also been criticism that John Paul II, who only died nine years ago, has been canonized too quickly.
Groups representing victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests also say he did not do enough to root out a scandal that emerged towards the end of his pontificate and which has hung over the church ever since.
The controversy did nothing to put off the thousands of Catholic faithful who flocked to the Vatican to witness the historic event.
"I think that they were two great people, each of them had their own particular character, so they deserve what is happening," said Leonardo Ruino, who came from Argentina.
About 10,000 police and security personnel and special paramedic teams were deployed and large areas of Rome were closed to traffic.
The outcome of Vatican II allowed Mass to be celebrated in local languages rather than Latin and encouraged greater dialogue with people of other faiths, particularly Jews.
During his papacy from 1978-2005, John Paul II helped topple communism through his support of Poland's Solidarity movement. His globetrotting papacy and launch of the wildly popular World Youth Days invigorated a new generation of Catholics, while his defense of core church teaching heartened conservatives after the turbulent 1960s.
"John Paul was our pope," said Therese Andjoua, a 49-year-old nurse who traveled from Libreville, Gabon, with some 300 other pilgrims to attend. She sported a traditional African dress bearing the images of the two new saints.
"In 1982 he came to Gabon and when he arrived he kissed the ground and told us to ‘Get up, go forward and be not afraid,"' she recalled as she rested against a pallet of water bottles. "When we heard he was going to be canonized, we got up."
Kings, queens, presidents and prime ministers from more than 90 countries attended. Some 20 Jewish leaders from the U.S., Israel, Italy, Francis' native Argentina and Poland were also taking part, in a clear sign of their appreciation for the great strides made in Catholic-Jewish relations under John, John Paul — and their successors celebrating their sainthood.
John, an Italian often known as the "Good Pope" because of his friendly, open personality, died before the Second Vatican Council ended its work in 1965 but his initiative set off one of the greatest upheavals in Church teaching in modern times.
The Council ended the use of Latin at Mass, brought in the use of modern music and opened the way for challenges to Vatican authority, which alienated some traditionalists.
John Paul continued many of the reforms but tightened central control, condemned theological renegades and preached a stricter line on social issues such as sexual freedom.
Al Jazeera and wire services