VATICAN CITY — Two 20th-century popes who changed the course of the Catholic Church became saints Sunday as Pope Francis honored John XXIII and John Paul II in a delicate balancing act aimed at bringing together the conservative and progressive wings of the church.
As if to drive the message of unity home, Francis invited retired Pope Benedict XVI to join him on the altar of St. Peter's Square, the first time a reigning and retired pope have celebrated Mass together in public in the 2,000-year history of the church.
An estimated 800,000 people — many of them from John Paul's native Poland — filled St. Peter's, the streets around it and bridges over the Tiber River, a huge turnout but only half the size of the crowd that came out for John Paul's 2011 beatification.
John reigned from 1958-1963 and 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 encouraged greater dialogue with people of other faiths, particularly Jews.
During his globe-trotting, quarter-century papacy, John Paul II helped topple communism and invigorated a new generation of Catholics, while his defense of core church teaching on abortion, marriage and other hot-button issues heartened conservatives after the turbulent 1960s.
Benedict was one of John Paul's closest confidantes and went on to preside over a deeply tradition-minded eight-year papacy. His successor, Francis, seems a pope much more inspired by the pastoral, simple style of the "good pope" John.
Yet Francis offered each new saint heartfelt praise in his homily, saying John had allowed himself to be led by God to call the council, and hailing John Paul's focus on the family. It's an issue that Francis has asked the church as a whole to take up for discussion with a two-year debate starting this fall.