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Pilgrims gather at the Vatican to witness canonization of two popes

April 25, 2014 at 6:17 PM EDT
Catholics from around the world converged in Rome ahead of the historic canonization of the 20th century’s most loved pontiffs. Pope John Paul II, who stood as a firm opponent to communism at the height of the Cold War, and John XXIII, the so-called “good pope” who is best known for convening reforms under the Second Vatican Council, will be declared saints in Saint Peter’s Square.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Catholics from around the world have converged on Rome this week to attend a ceremony unprecedented in the modern church.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Crowds flooded the Vatican today ahead of Sunday’s historic canonization of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII.

More than a million people are expected to pack St. Peter’s Square as two of the 20th century’s most beloved pontiffs are declared saints.

ANTONIO PIRRONE (through interpreter): They were both great popes. They changed what was the course of the church throughout centuries. So I think that they will do a lot as saints, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Paul II will achieve that status faster than anyone in modern times. The Polish cardinal was elected pope in 1978, at the height of the Cold War, and stood as a firm opponent to communism. He became wildly popular, and was greeting the faithful in St. Peter’s Square in May 1981, when he was shot by a Turkish gunman.

He recovered and ultimately reigned for 26 years until his death in 2005. Since then, though, there has been continued criticism over the handling of sexual abuse by priests under his watch.

MARCO POLITI, Vatican Analyst: The sex abuse affair is a dark page of his papacy. In my opinion, during the last year of his papacy, John Paul II wasn’t informed enough about a lot of details.

JEFFREY BROWN: But John Paul’s supporters have defended his actions.

JOAQUIN NAVARRO-VALLS, Spokesman for Pope John Paul II (through interpreter): The pope was very worried, given the purity of his thought, to accept the reality of sex abuse by priests. It was incredible. But he accepted it. Naturally, he began immediately to make decisions.

JEFFREY BROWN: John XXIII, the so-called Good Pope, was elected pontiff in 1958, and is best known for convening the Second Vatican Council. It approved a variety of reforms, including celebrations of mass in languages other than Latin.

Pope John XXIII died of stomach cancer in 1963. He will become a saint, even though the church documented just one miracle, instead of the customary two.