VATICAN CITY — The retired pontiff, Benedict XVI, will help Pope Francis celebrate the sainthood ceremony today for John Paul II and John XXIII, setting the stage for an unprecedented occurrence of two living popes canonizing two of their predecessors. One million pilgrims are expected at the event, and many were flooding into Rome on Saturday.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters on Saturday that Benedict will be in St. Peter's Square for the canonization of John and John Paul. He said Benedict and many cardinals will "concelebrate" the Mass with Francis.
Benedict resigned from the papacy a year ago, and since has largely dedicated himself to prayer in a monastery on the Vatican grounds. Francis, who lives elsewhere in Vatican City, in a guesthouse, has been quite welcoming to his predecessor, occasionally paying a call on Benedict. It was Francis who sought to include Benedict in today's ceremony.
"Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI has accepted the invitation, and has let Pope Francis know that he will be present tomorrow morning at the canonization ceremony and will concelebrate" along with other prelates, Lombardi said.
"That doesn't mean that he will go up on the altar" on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica, Lombardi said of the outdoor Mass. He noted that during the ceremony, cardinals and bishops will be seated on one side of the esplanade, with, presumably, Benedict among them.
"We will all be happy to have his presence" at the ceremony, the Vatican spokesman said.
Benedict also showed up at Francis' ceremony to elevate churchmen to cardinal rank in February. But that ceremony wasn't a Mass, meaning today's appearance by two popes would be the first Mass concelebrated by two pontiffs, one reigning and the other retired.
As German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict presided over John Paul II's funeral in the square in 2005. He was soon elected pontiff, going on to lead the ceremony to beatify his Polish-born predecessor in 2011, also in the square. Beatification is the last formal step before sainthood. It was John Paul who appointed the German prelate to a key Vatican post in charge of safeguarding church teaching, and eventually, also dealing with the mounting cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests in the United States and elsewhere.
Benedict has a connection to John XXIII's papacy as well. As a young theologian, he attended the Second Vatican Council, the gathering of prelates from around the globe that the Italian pope set up as a way to bring modernizing reforms to the Catholic church.
On Saturday, pilgrims were pouring into Rome in big groups or as individual families or travelers, eager to be among those taking their place in the square before dawn on the day of the ceremony. The sound of hymns, in Polish, English and Italian, echoed suddenly in some of Rome's streets Saturday, then just as abruptly faded, as the faithful joyfully sang as they made their way through the Italian capital.
Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said an estimated 1 million people were expected to flood into Rome for the event.
Some pilgrims didn't want any lodging. They rolled out mats and spread sleeping bags on the edges of St. Peter's Square in hopes of being among the first to enter.