In Rome, intense prayer before canonizations

For those who were fortunate to be in Rome for the last days leading up to the canonizations of Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II, the Eternal City was filled with a mixture of joy, intense prayer and reflection as it prepared to welcome two new saints for the Church. This was especially true of the extraordinary prayer vigils held in churches all over Rome on the evening before the canonizations.

Called the “White Night of Prayer” after the thousands of white candles that lit up the churches, the vigil was conducted in 11 parishes around the Eternal City that had been chosen to host pilgrims and Italians with prayers, readings, hymns and singing in different languages. The vigils included the opportunity for confession. A similar night was held in 2011 on the vigil of Pope John Paul II’s beatification, although it was centered on one event — a night of prayer held at the Circus Maximus that was chiefly attended by pilgrims from Poland, Spain, Germany and Brazil.

Places of prayer

canonization vigil
Pilgrims sleeping in a church near the Vatican during the vigil await the canonization of Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II. Newscom photo

The churches chosen for the vigil of the canonizations included some of the grandest basilicas in Rome as well as some smaller but beautiful churches in different parts of the city. San Marco al Campidoglio in the Piazza San Marco on the Capitoline Hill in the middle of Rome hosted a vigil in English and Italian, while there were also vigils held in the Lateran Basilica, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the Church of St. Ignatius and San Andrea della Valle. Young Italians belonging to Catholic Action gathered in the parish church of Santa Maria delle Grazie al Trionfale from 10:30 p.m. until 5 a.m., at which time most walked to the nearby Vatican. The languages ranged from Italian and English to Arabic, Polish, Portuguese and Spanish. In addition, all of Rome’s parishes remained open through the night to serve as places of prayer.

To assist the selected churches with their liturgies, the liturgical office of the Vicariate of Rome prepared three different types of vigils, with each local community fully free to use one of them or to develop their own. The three options were: the Office of the Readings of the Second Sunday of Easter; a traditional Eucharistic celebration followed by Eucharistic adoration; and the so-called lucernario (literally, “skylight”), a prayer service customarily celebrated on a Saturday evening immediately after the sunset. The Vicariate of Rome also granted permission to display relics of the two new saints, but not on the altar.

The Church as one

The evening was started by two special services. The first was vespers at 5 p.m. in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls that was followed by adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the display of items belonging to Pope John and the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962. The second was a special prayer vigil for the faithful of Bergamo, John’s home diocese, in the Basilica of St. John Lateran. This was much appreciated by the pilgrims from Bergamo, especially as there has been a feeling at times over the last days that Pope John was overshadowed by his saintly successor. Italians loved Papa Giovanni Paolo II, as they called him, but they have taken special pride in Papa Giovanni XXIII.

Pilgrims sit outside St. Peter’s Square on April 26 as they prepare for the canonizations the next day. Newscom photo

Pope John was also much of the center of attention during the vigil at San Marco, which was a variation on the Lucernario and was attended throughout the night by hundreds of pilgrims from different countries who sat with native Italians. There were wealthy American tourists next to very humble Romans, and elegant Romans next to young pilgrims with flags and backpacks who planned to sleep on the streets near St. Peter’s Square. Many sat on the floor along the side aisles as the chairs in the central nave were filled.

Especially striking was the participation of youth. There were young singers, and young people served as the readers throughout the formal vigil portions, reading excerpts from John XXIII’s encyclicals and letter to young people and an Angelus of John Paul II, as well as a reading from John 20:19-31 and poetry by Chiara Lubich, the late founder of the Focolare Movement.

The vigil at the church of St. Agnes in Agony in the Piazza Navona was held outdoors in the piazza because of the sheer size of the crowd. The vigil was intended for the Polish pilgrims, and the ornate and famous piazza was transformed into a Polish square — Polish songs and hymns linked together prayerful reflections on the new saints, most so the son of Poland, Karol Wojtyla. Estimates were that 1,700 busloads just of Poles, some 170,000 pilgrims of the hundreds of thousands expected, had arrived in Rome in the few days leading up to the canonization.

Nearby to the Piazza Navona and just across the Tiber from Vatican City is the church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, the Church of St. John the Baptist, with its vigil dedicated to Italian speaking pilgrims. The pilgrims there were given pens and paper to write prayer requests that were then placed in baskets at the foot of the altar. As with all of the other churches, the church was filled with young people, many of whom slept a little before heading toward St. Peter’s Basilica to await the dawn.

Intense preparation

Pope Francis expressed a desire that the canonizations be concerned less with wild celebration and be more focused on prayer and spiritual preparation for the unprecedented events of Divine Mercy Sunday on which two popes were canonized at once for the first time in the history of the Church. Far from a raucous celebration, the vigils had a distinct note of sobriety and prayerful intensity. There was no cheering or applauding. The crowd was respectfully quiet but also keenly engaged. Pilgrims remained for the entire night in prayer and sleep.

And then there were the hundreds of informal prayer vigils and the enthusiastic march to St. Peter’s Basilica. Across Rome and in the surrounding towns and campgrounds, pilgrims gathered to sing, pray and recite the rosary. They were visible — and audible — everywhere, with flags and banners, musical instruments and colorful shirts and hats.

They were especially heard in the early morning hours of Divine Mercy Sunday as they marched in groups large and small to St. Peter’s Square from all directions, singing and chanting the names of John Paul II and John XXIII in a host of languages. Romans and tourists awakened by the chorus were reminded that only a few hours later the Church would be blessed with two new saints.

Matthew Bunson is OSV senior correspondent.