Article - Summer 2014

4 Popes, 4 Saints, One New Guy

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Perhaps you’ve heard the news from Rome. But what does it really have to do with the man from Assisi?

By Ingrid D. Rowland


In the very first minutes of his papacy, Francis greeted the crowd gathered beneath St. Peter’s Basilica with a disarming “Brothers and sisters, good evening.” As he emerged on the balcony of the enormous basilica, the rain stopped, the rain that had been pelting Rome all winter with out-of-season thunderstorms and monsoon-like torrential bursts. The first days of Pope Francis were gloriously sunny. It looked as if he had charmed Jupiter the Thunderer as quickly as he charmed the mortal crowds.

A little more than a year into his papacy, Francis has already made a powerful impression on Rome and the Catholic Church. Elected in the aftermath of the sudden resignation of Benedict XVI in February 2013, the Argentine from “the ends of the earth” had attracted millions of pilgrims to Rome even before more than a million visitors converged on the city on April 27, 2014, to celebrate the joint canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II.

The canonization was an extraordinary event in many respects, with two popes in attendance and two other recent popes raised to the status of saint, two radically different popes at that: Angelo Roncalli, the down-to-earth Italian papa buono who initiated the reforming Second Vatican Council in 1962, and Karol Wojtyla, the charismatic Pole who held office for almost 27 years. With crowds overflowing the streets leading to the Vatican and spilling over to several other public squares in Rome, Francis presided over a ceremony that managed to demonstrate both the antiquity of the institution he embodies and its infinite capacity for change. He did so, moreover, in a way that was orderly, tasteful, and solemn, and all this in the face of a crush of humanity greater than the entire population of ancient Rome, and a third that of the present-day city.

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Ingrid D. Rowland is a professor at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, Rome campus. Her most recent book is From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town.


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