Earlier today, the Vatican celebrated a special Mass for the canonization of two Popes, now-Saints John XXIII and John Paul II. That in itself was a historic event, but it also included another first — the presence of two Pontiffs. Pope Francis greeted Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI before the Mass:

For those who understand Latin — unfortunately, I’m not one of them — here is the conclusion of the canonization declaration and blessing:

Update: Here is another from Catholic News Service with more of the declaration:

Boston Globe reporter called the mood at the Vatican “Mardi Gras on steroids,” while CNN offered some of the festive scenes. Delia Gallagher discussed the mood at more length after the end of Mass:

CNN also reported on Francis’ salute to both men in his homily:

In his homily, Francis described the pair as “men of courage” who bore witness to God’s mercy.

“They were priests, bishops and popes of the 20th century,” he said. “They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them, God was more powerful, faith was more powerful.”

He paid tribute to the efforts of John XXIII and John Paul II to renew and strengthen the church.

The landmark Second Vatican Council called by John XXIII was of great service to the church, he said. That council helped to bring the church to the people, for example by allowing languages other than Latin to be used for Mass.

John Paul II, who served for nearly 27 years, is seen as the “pope of the family” and wanted to be remembered that way, Francis added.

It’s true that Vatican II allowed for liturgical celebration in the vernacular, but that’s only a small part of the Second Vatican Council and its impact on Catholicism. St. John Paul II was one of the philosophical giants of the council, and worked for the rest of his life to turn the Church from inward-looking to outward-acting. He himself may have been the greatest sign of that transformation in his visit to Poland early in his pontificate, a visit that lit a fire that would result in a popular uprising against Communist oppression that would eventually free half of the continent — while other world leaders were still talking about “peaceful coexistence” on a permanent basis with tyranny.

I have been following the preparations for this celebration with nostalgia and no small amount of wistfulness. The two-plus weeks of my assignment to the Vatican for the conclave were among the most memorable of my career, but this weekend I’m recalling my 2011 trip to Rome more. My wife and I planned that week around the beatification Mass for St. John Paul II, an event which we hoped to attend in St. Peter’s Square. We got within about a half-mile of it, as it turned out, but I’m not sure I would have chosen a better venue:

We knew it would be difficult to get into St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, but we had no idea it would be as impossible as it was.  Unbeknownst to us, so many people had camped outside the gates (and inside before they closed it on Saturday night) that the issue of access was mooted by 1 am or so.  We arrived six hours later, thanks to a cab driver who erupted in disbelief when I first told him I wanted to go to St. Peter’s Square.  He got us as close as he possibly could, though, but it was far too late for us to even get within site of the square.

Instead, we hunkered down behind a big truck where a big-screen display and loudspeakers were set up to allow us to take part in the ceremony near the museum entrance.  We couldn’t see the screen, but at least we could sit — and we met a number of other lovely people that day who stayed in the same area.  This picture shows our friends Fern and Rosemary from London:

I wonder if Fern and Rosemary made the trip this time. Around three million of us crowded into and around the Vatican in 2011, and while we haven’t yet heard the final estimates of the crowd size, I’m betting this was larger.  I would have loved to have returned for this event, but it wasn’t in the cards. My friends Kathryn Jean Lopez and Charmaine Yoest have kept me and other Twitter followers up to date on their experiences, so this time I’m experiencing it vicariously.

Besides, the world media has covered this with unusual vigor — and Peter Ingemi says that’s bad news for opponents of the Catholic Church, and of faith in general:

First you have the election of the first Latin American pope. It forced them to narrow their attacks to avoid any appearance of hitting Francis for fear of a backlash. Francis’ humble ways haven’t made it easy.

Then you have a Pope who using social media effectively. Millions of people follow his tweets in seven languages without a filter.

Next you have the canonization of Pope John Paul II, A man not only in the living memory of anyone 20 years old or over but who tens or even hundreds of millions of people alive have seen or met in person. In a celebrity obsessed culture A week’s worth of critical media stories on him can’t counter a someone able to say about an actual saint: “I saw him” “I met him” effect.

Pope John Paul II canonization might still have been an opening for division until Francis decided to schedule it together with John XXIII. Suddenly it became harder to split the various camps within the church for the ceremony of the Pope who started Vatican II.

Finally you have the first canonization ceremony of Pope Francis AND the presence of a Pope emeritus making it a four pope event something unheard of in history making it a story that the cable networks practically had to cover live.

Of all the things that have gone wrong for the Catholic haters since Francis’ election this is the worst. If you want to portray the Catholic Church as a bunch of stuck up bigots who hate woman or heralds of the anti-christ the last thing you want is people seeing a live mass filled with millions of the joyful faithful in worshiping in a setting and ceremony filled with the Holy Spirit.

Try explaining that away.

Speaking of explanations, let’s finish the post with Fr. James Martin, author of Between Heaven and Mirth and other enjoyable titles on faith. Fr. Martin gives a concise and easily-understood explanation of saints and their teaching role in the Church: