Canonisation pilgrims flock to Rome

Whatever about the crowds, the ceremony will be historic on a number of fronts.

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have already begun arriving in Rome for Sunday's double-canonisation ceremony that will see Popes John XXIII and John Paul II declared Saints of the Church. Excitement is mounting and in every corner of Rome pilgrims are making their preparations for Sunday.

Estimates vary widely on how many pilgrims will be in the eternal city for the event with some Italian newspapers speculating that as many as seven million people will participate. However, Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi has dismissed this insisting it is an exaggeration.

St Peter's Square itself holds only around 150,000 people, meaning that many pilgrims will fill the streets around the Vatican. Rome city authorities have also erected 17 large screens at strategic points throughout the city for those who will inevitably be unable to make it to the Vatican.

Whatever about the crowds, the ceremony will be historic on a number of fronts. Firstly, it will be the first time that two Popes have been canonised together. There's also the fact that two living Popes will be present as Pope emeritus Benedict XVI joins Pope Francis and up to150 cardinals, 1,000 bishops and 6,000 priests.

Central Rome will be closed to traffic on Saturday from 7pm marking the beginning of a so-called 'white night'. Churches in the historic centre will stay open all night in prayer vigils in preparation for Sunday's Mass. Churches across the city will be offering prayers, Masses and the Sacrament of Reconciliation in various languages. The vigils will have a particular focus on young people.

John XXIII and John Paul II are very much 'men of our time'. We're used to thinking of saints as people who lived hundreds of years ago in distant places. Both Popes, largely due to mass media, are hugely well-known across the world. John XXIII was the first modern Pope to take on visiting the different areas of Rome. Natives still recall with joy his pastoral visits: to the deprived suburban parishes, to hospitals for sick children, to the Regina Coeli prison where he offered hope to those who were incarcerated. Italians fondly remember his 'moonlight speech' in St Peter's Square where he told the crowds: "When you go back home, you will find your children: and give them a hug and say,'This is a hug from the Pope'. You will find some tears that need to be dried: speak a good word:'The Pope is with us, especially in times of sadness and bitterness.'

John Paul II did more than any other Pope to bring the papacy to the modern world. His globetrotting meant that Catholics in every corner of the world were able to hear the Pope and to be with him as liturgies, Masses and large events in their own country.

Hundreds of thousands of people from John Paul's native Poland are in Rome for the ceremony.

But it is not just in Poland where his impact is felt on the Church. It's become somewhat clichéd to speak of life-changing events, but it's remarkable to meet people whose lives were actually transformed by an encounter with John Paul II. The number of young women and men who began to deepen their faith based on his challenge. The number of priests and religious who directly attribute their vocation to his ministry and example.

All of the pilgrims in Rome are here for very personal reasons. For some, it will be because they have been touched by the example of these two great Pope-Saints. For others it will be an opportunity to celebrate their common Catholic faith.

While the canonisations Mass will first-and-foremost be a religious event, the number of diplomatic representatives in attendance is an indication of just how influential the papacy remains on the global stage. Pilgrims will be joined by 24 Heads of State and 35 Prime Ministers. In all, 93 governments will send official representatives to the ceremony. The Vatican has also informed other Churches, Christian communities and faiths of the event and a spokesman said he expected representatives to attend.

As estimated 3,000 Irish pilgrims in Rome for the ceremony will attend a Mass of Thanksgiving on Monday,April 28 at 4pm in the Basilicaof Santa Maria in Domnica alla Navicella, close to the Irish College.