Pope Francis canonized into sainthood two 20th-century popes at a Mass Sunday conducted before hundreds of thousands of people at the Vatican's St. Peter's Square, lauding his predecessors as "men of courage."
The crowd roared when Pope Francis read the formal proclamation of sainthood for Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II. The event drew scores of global leaders as well as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, whose decision to step down last year put Francis at the helm of the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics.
"They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them," Francis said of the newest saints. "For them, God was more powerful; faith was more powerful -- faith in Jesus Christ the Redeemer of man and the Lord of history."
Pope Francis described Saint John XXIII as "the pope of openness to the Spirit" and Saint John Paul II as "the pope of the family." Francis stressed their faith, saying they were filled with the Holy Spirit and "bore witness before the Church and the world to God's goodness and mercy."
The two new saints "teach us to enter ever more deeply into the mystery of divine mercy," he concluded.
St. Peter's Square was packed for the event, and big-screen TVs were set up in squares -- piazzas -- around the city so thousands more could witness the spectacle on a chilly, gray day in the ancient city.
Polish pilgrims carrying the red and white flags of John Paul's beloved homeland had been among the first to push into the square well before sunrise, as the human chains of neon-vested civil protection workers trying to maintain order finally gave up and let them in.
"Four popes in one ceremony is a fantastic thing to see and to be at, because it is history being written in our sight," marveled one of the visiting Poles, David Halfar. "It is wonderful to be a part in this and to live all of this."
Benedict had promised to remain "hidden from the world" after resigning last year, but Francis has coaxed him out of retirement and urged him to take part in the public life of the church.
In a dress rehearsal of sorts, Benedict attended the February ceremony in which Francis installed 19 new cardinals. But celebrating Mass together with Francis was something else entirely, a first for the 2,000-year-old institution and a reflection of Francis' desire to show the continuity in the papacy, despite different personalities, priorities and politics.
Pope John XIII, who reigned from 1958-1963, is a hero to liberal Catholics for having convened the Second Vatican Council. The meetings brought the church into the modern era by allowing Mass to be celebrated in local languages rather than Latin and by encouraging greater dialogue with people of other faiths, particularly Jews.
During his quarter-century papacy from 1978-2005, John Paul II helped topple communism through his support of Poland's Solidarity movement. His globe-trotting 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.
Contributing: Associated Press