VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis proclaimed his predecessors John XXIII and John Paul II saints in front of more than half a million pilgrims in the Vatican on Sunday, 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 canonization 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 enroll 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.

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

The crowd was so large it stretched back along Via della Conciliazione, the broad, half-kilometer boulevard that starts at the Tiber River.

The Mass was also attended by former Pope Benedict, who last year became the first pontiff in six centuries to step down. Benedict walked with a cane and was dressed in white.

His attendance gave the ceremony a somewhat surreal atmosphere created by the presence of reigning pope, a retired pope and two dead popes buried in the basilica. Francis went over to greet Benedict twice during the service.

"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.

"They lived through the tragic events of that (the 20th) century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them, God was more powerful; faith was more powerful," he added.

Both popes did much to end two millennia of Catholic anti-Semitism during their respective reigns, and the decision to make them saints was welcomed by Jews around the world.

John XXIII, who reigned from 1958 to 1963 is especially remembered for calling the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), whose landmark document "Nostra Aetate" (In Our Times) repudiated the 2,000-year-old concept of collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus.

John Paul II, the Pole who reigned for nearly 27 years became the first pope since ancient times to visit a synagogue. On a visit to Jerusalem's Western Wall, he left a note saying he was "deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer."

"It was a gesture that will never be forgotten," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the group that hailed the two new saints as heroes.


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