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History as two former Popes declared saints

 We declare and defi ne Blessed John XXIII and John Paul II to be saints and we enrol them among the saints, decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole Church,” — Pope Francis

By Martin Mutua and Agencies

Rome: The Catholic Church made history when it elevated two former Popes to sainthood on Sunday at a colourful event that was also presided by two of their successors at the St Peter’s square, Rome. The event was witnessed by thousands of people from all walks of life.

Pope Francis proclaimed his predecessors John XXIII and John Paul II saints in front of more than half a million pilgrims hailing both as courageous men who withstood the tragedies of the 20th century.

Cheers and applause rang out across St Peter’s Square after the historic double papal canonisation as many in the crowd fixed their gaze on huge tapestries of the two popes on the facade of the basilica behind Francis. “We declare and define Blessed John XXIII and John Paul II to be saints and we enrol 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.

The event was beamed live by the international media from the Vatican and watched across the world by millions of faithful.

Relics of each man - a container of blood from John Paul II and skin from John XXIII - were placed near the altar.

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 after a string of sex abuse and financial scandals.

“These were two men of courage ... and they bore witness before the Church and the world to God’s goodness and mercy,” Francis said in his address, adding: “They lived through the tragic events of that 20th century, but were not overwhelmed by them. For them, God and faith was more powerful.”

The late John Paul II who headed the church for 27 years was made a saint together with his predecessor the late John Paul XVIII who headed the church for only five years.

According to records, John Paul II during his pontificate made 104 foreign trips abroad  more than all previous popes combined. In total he is believed to have done more than 1,167,000 kilometres.

Contrasting reigns

Never in the history of the church has a reigning Pope and a retired one officiated at a function to honour their successors. Yesterday, Pope Francis who is now a year old on the seat, presided the function his predecessor retired Pope Benedict XVI also attended. The two hugged each other at the start and end of the function as they exchanged pleasantries.

However in Africa and Kenya in particular, the vivid memories of now Saint John Paul II reverberate in the memories of most people because the late church head visited the county three times during his papacy, a move considered as historic.

And in all the three visits, now Saint John Paul II was received by former President Daniel arap Moi who accorded him all the honours of a State visit while the late servant of God Maurice Cardinal Otunga who could be following in his footsteps hosted him.

The late cardinal Otunga was considered to be John Paul II point man not only in Kenya but in Africa, having been also one of the longest serving Cardinals in Africa. He had been elevated to the position in 1973 when he was 50.

Pope John Paul II visited Kenya three times first in May 1980 and then five years later he was to return for the 43rd International Eucharistic Congress that was held at the historic Uhuru park; with delegates from all parts of the world.

Kenya extolled

And finally, the late John Paul returned to Kenya 10 years later in 1995 for the last time  at a visit that marked a major milestone for the church  in  Africa to mark the unveiling of a  special synod for Africa that took him to three  countries: Cameroon, Madagascar and finally Kenya.

In Kenya on the afternoon of September 20, 1995, John Paull II presided at the third commemorative Session of the Synod in Nairobi.

On the same day, he also made an address during a Synod Session at the Resurrection Garden where he stressed the Church is a uniting entity in a fractious continent. 

 He extolled the country’s strategic position in Africa.  “Kenya occupies a central place in the promise that is Africa. It has the resources to work against the obstacles that stand in the way of progress, and to work for a society of justice and harmony,” he said at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport before his departure on September 20 1995.

While both men were widely revered, there has also been criticism that John Paul II, who died just nine years ago, has been canonised too quickly.